ASTRAY by Emma Donaghue: A Review of a Short Story Collection

As I read the stories in this 2012 published collection, several seemed familiar, and I finally realized where I had originally read them. I had encountered them in The New Yorker over a period of time. Although I did not recall the author’s name, her style and type of topic her stories are based on was what rang a bell. Many of the stories are based on newspaper clippings or snippets of history.

The Houston Chronicle referred to it as “one of the best books of the year” in 2012, and every story is of “New Yorker quality”, whether a longer piece or a very short, short story. The book is divided into three sections: “Departures” (My favorite of this section was “The Widow’s Cruise” where a scheming lawyer decides to take advantage of a grieving widow, only to have his plan boomerang on him.), “In Transit” (My favorite of this section was “The Body Swap” which tells of a little known plan to steal and hold for ransom Abraham Lincoln’s corpse.  Its denouement is a humorous, “gotcha” ending which made me chuckle.), and “Arrivals and Aftermaths,” more or less miscellaneous stories (My favorite  of this section was the shocking and true story, “Daddy’s Girl.”).

The author chose her title expressed in the front from a thought in Virgil’s Aenid:

“…We wander, ignorant of men and places,

And driven by the wind and the vast waves.”

Indeed, all of the characters in all of the stories have gone adrift or “astray” in some way or another.

It is a masterful collection.

ANOTHER COZY MYSTERY: A Review

A cozy mystery, defined, is: someone gets killed, but it’s a really bad person anyway, and there’s minimum graphic and gore, and is the perfect read to cozy up to on a cold day.  Cozies are pure escape reading, and some of them are quite good–entertaining anyway. I have just finished the third of a mail package sent by my husbands cousin who lives in California.  I can’t wait to tell her that the author lives in Friendswood, Texas, not ten miles away from where I live.  According to a stamp in the front of the book, the cousin purchased it at a used paperback shop in Grover Beach, CA.  Lends a whole new meaning to the phrase, “small world” hmmmmm?”

The Cat, The Quilt, and the Corpse by Leann Sweeney, an award winning mystery writer, is in her “Cats in Trouble Series”. She has a line on the cover which says, “When cats are in trouble, their nine lives come in handy.”  The corpse in question is the lowest of the low, a catnapper! And the quilts?  Quilts made for cats, of course.

Widowed ten months ago, and  having moved to a small (really small) town in South Carolina from Texas, Jillian returns from an overnight quilt show to find her house broken into and one of her three cats (Katrina rescues, pure bloods) missing. How she tracks down her missing cat, discovers the corpse of the catnapper (making her and several prospective cat-loving friends ,suspects) is the gist of this story. Small town characters abound and if Jillian learns nothing else, it’s not to rely on first impressions.

This is an interesting story of making friends, being the outsider and the speculation of much gossip, and the important relationships we can forge with our pet-friends.  It is worth a read.  It is cozy.

TUESDAY TEASER

Ok, PWR members and friends thereof, it’s time for your Tuesday Teaser.  Let us know what you’re currently reading by randomly opening your book and copying two or so lines to tease us into adding your current read into our TBR (To Be Read) List. Be careful not to include any spoilers.   Here’s mine from The Cat, The Quilt, and The Corpse, a cozy mystery by Leann Sweeney from her “Cats in Trouble” series:

Several crates of cats which had been rescued from the dead cat-stealer’s house have just arrived at the cat-quilter’s home for temporary fostering.  “The Siamese  began wailing its head off, and my three [cats] ventured into the foyer to check out the noise.  Merlot (one of her cats) took one look at those crates (full of rescued cats), hissed and hightailed it back to wherever he’d been hiding.  But apparently Syrah (her second cat) wasn’t bothered, and Chablis (her third cat) was too drugged to care about possible unwelcome visitors.”

Who was this derelict dead man who had stolen her precious cat? And more important, who had stabbed him to death?  If only the cat could talk.

 

MONDAY MORNING MUSINGS: A Tribute to Deb Nance at Readerbuzz

Today’s musings are about a friend, in fact my “adopted” little sister, Debbie Nance.  Where do I start to list the things she has done for me?  Maybe at the beginning, when I first met her.  We were either at a Library Board Meeting or a Third Tuesday Book Club meeting when I was asked to give someone my e-mail address.  With the distain that only a Senior Citizen who thinks e-mail and other computer frivolities are a “waste of time” and for people who are “too lazy to pick up the phone,” I said (confession: I probably turned up my nose and gave a scornful “sniff”), “I don’t do e-mail.”

With no hint of judgment or condemnation, Debbie said “Oh you really should; you would enjoy it.” and explained to me that a volunteer at the library could help me set up an account, and I could use the computers at the library any time the library was open. Thus began my journey to technological savvy. With Debbie to answer my questions (and no question was judged a “dumb question”) I soon was saving myself a trip to the university to “do things required on line”, for I could do them at the local library.  That led to our (my husband and my) realization that we really needed a computer at the house, and with the help of a young man we had met at the Senior Center Learning Lunch, who really wanted to help Seniors just because he was such a fine, Christian young man, we set up a desktop computer, later added a laptop just for me, etc. etc.

And all of this because Debbie was kind enough to tell me in the gentlest way possible that I “really should…” Thank you Debbie for bringing me into the twenty-first century (perhaps kicking and resisting the whole way) and introducing me, not only to your wonderful blog (www.readerbuzz.blogspot.com) but to the blogging community.  And, as Paul Harvey used to say, you can see the results here for yourself, which is “the rest of the story.”

 

BEFORE AMEN by Max Lucado: A Review

This is a review of a re-read.  Every so many months, I check it out from my church library and give it a re-read as a check up on my prayer life.  Yes, I have bought the book, more than one copy as a matter of fact, but I always end up giving my copy away to someone who needs it just as much as I do.

This week I re-read the simply structured book, saying “Um hum, ok” and “Hmm, not so good”… as I read. The model prayer, the pocket prayer, as the author calls it because it can fit in your pocket, is simple:

Father,

you are good.

I need help.

They need help.

Thank you.

In Jesus’ name, amen.

That’s it. All you need to effectively pray are in those lines. Each succeeding chapter is a meditation or musing upon each line in the Pocket Prayer.  It begins with “Father” and thinks about what it means to have accessibility to God because He is our Loving Father.  It is a first chapter rich with nuances and thought-provoking concepts.

My favorite chapter, perhaps because I am so big on, “Give me applications, so I can USE this…”is the one that presents the line, “They need help.”  Lucado points out that when we see a Mom struggling with a screaming toddler, yanking her by the arm, we need to pray that line, “She needs help,” not be judgmental or condemning. Every morning when I go out to pick up my morning paper and maybe put mail in the box for the postman to pick up, I stand at the end of the sidewalk, paper in hand and look at each house on the cut de sac, praying that particular line, “They need help.” I look at and linger over each house, those families I know well and have known for a long time, and those I just wave at when I see them drive by. I pray specifically for needs I know about: illnesses in the extended families, broken or shaky relationships, small and demanding children and/or adolescents, whatever needs I know about.  I give a generally “Bless them in whatever way they need at this time” request for houses whose occupants I don’t know by name or know anything about them, but see them often–going to work, taking the kids to school or getting their mail or papers in.

Every line has ways you can put that line to work in your prayer life, applications you can make and start doing that makes you feel a part of the Lord’s work.

Max Ludcado is my favorite inspirational author, and this practical, convicting, applicable book is one of his best.

 

 

HOW TO BE BOTH: A REVIEW

Ali Smith’s 2014 publication, How to Be Both,  is a novel written around a novel, and is one of the strangest, yet best written books I have read.  It’s theme (This is a guess.) is androgyny. The beginning reads like poetry and is even placed on the page as such.  If there is a “story” it is that of a young girl who disguises herself as a boy to study under and apprentice herself to a fresco painter in Italy during the Renaissance.  Her characters in her paintings, like herself, are androgynous. The novel is also the “story” of a modern day  girl whose mother has just died.

The girl in the second novel, George, (named after the song “Georgie Girl” by her raised-in-the-sixties mom) takes a trip to Italy with her mother and young brother to view the tower where the artist from the first novel has painted some of the walls.  It is a present day museum. The mother and daughter “experience” the frescoes and share intimate thoughts/musings not often shared by a teenager and her mom.

After the mother dies, George visits a nearby museum where parts of the fresco details by the artist she and her mother admired are displayed.  She visits frequently which brings comfort and revelations about herself.  The one person who seems to understand George’s grief and deals with it along with her, a girl from school, is scheduled to move to Denmark shortly after she and Georgie begin to be friends just as they have begun to question whether they may be interested in becoming more than friends.

It is a strange book because it has no chapters, not even any sections, no barriers or boundaries between novels/stories, and thus becomes a challenge to read. It is a prize winning novel, definitely real literature, and perhaps a message to readers who explore its layers and depths.

I probably will need to and want to read this book again at a future date.

 

Monday Morning Musings

Every so often I’ll get a call from a former student who is originally from Bejing.  It has been years since she was in my Intermediate Writing class, mostly filled with international students, but she still considers me her teacher–a fact which pleases me a great deal. Sometimes she wants to know what an American expression or idiom means.  Recently I made a list of commonly used idioms and am going to share them this rainy morning:

“Let the cat out of the bag” or “spill the beans” means to tell a secret unintentionally.  Ex. I thought your daughter knew you were thinking about moving.  I didn’t mean to let the cat out of the bag.

“Bite the dust” means to die.  In the Wild West, a cowboy who was shot “bit the dust.”

“When pigs fly” means it (whatever you’re talking about) isn’t ever going to happen.  Ex. I will let my son go to see that trashy movie when pigs fly.

“Heard it through the grapevine” means one heard something from gossip exchanged person to person.  Ex. Mrs, Jones is getting a divorce.  I heard it through the grapevine.

“Go cold turkey” means to quit something suddenly and completely. Ex. I gave up cigarettes cold turkey.

A “wet blanket” is someone who ruins all the fun.  Ex. Don’t invite Mary to the party; she’s a wet blanket.

When one is “talking up a blue streak,” he/she is talking very fast.  Ex. The two ladies seated at the corner table were talking up a blue streak.

“Sit tight” means do not do anything until you are told what to do next. Ex. Until you hear from me about applying for the loan, sit tight.

These are just a few of the hundreds, maybe thousands of idioms used in daily American speech.

Which ones do you hear all the time?  Scroll way down and leave a reply.  The box will open up for you. List an idiom you have heard, or if there is an expression/idiom that is not clear, use “reply” to ask what it means.

“Be seeing you” means goodbye for now.

Sunday (Evening) Post

While wandering among blogs this afternoon, one blog led me to check out another until I found myself reading blogs I was not actually following, but had been re-blogged on one I was.  Among my “findings” was a blog entitled “Live to Write–Write to Live.”  Today’s weekend post started with a quote that gave me hope in these broken times:
“Do not be discouraged at the brokenness of the world.  All things break.  And all things can be mended.  Not with time, as they say, but with intention.  So go.  Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.  The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.” I hope younger people, especially, will take these words to heart.  They were attributed to L.R. Knost, evidently a children’s and parenting author.

This past week has had many evidences that we are living in a broken world, not the least of which was two “evacuate the building…do not use the elevators” commands which interrupted my last class day last Wednesday.  After the second evacuation and the second climb up and down stairs, we decided to go home.  There was nothing on the local news about any fire or other “trouble,” so it was probably just a drill on a Wednesday afternoon when few classes are scheduled. In a way, it was a good thing; I was able to go home early,  we missed the usual horrendous traffic, and I was spared making a “This has been such a good group, it is hard to see you go” speech, which is especially true this semester and would be hard to get through emotionally. Ok, so I’m an old softie!

So, one of the things I finished last week was the school semester.  Another was the multi-stranded novel Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke, which I reviewed in the post immediately preceding this one.  Today’s jam-packed-full Houston Chronicle, Sunday Edition is also done for another week, and I am up to date on my New Yorkers with the exception of three fiction offerings in three back editions.

What I am still reading (and still bemused by and enchanted with) is How to Be Both, a novel by Ali Smith.  It keeps unfolding and yet re-connecting to the beginning in the strangest of ways with very few stops, pauses, no chapters to speak of, definitely a unique book. This book will certainly require a re-read (or two or three) to get to all the “meat” of the author’s thoughts.  How I will ever review this book presents a conundrum.

What I am still watching:  Up to date on “This is Us” with just the season finale (Christmas episode) left to see; “Poldark” on PBS; “Timeless” which is still timely (pun intended); “The Big Bang Theory,” which will still be funny when the “guys and gals” are Senior Citizens; and “Gray’s Anatomy,” the best soap opera on TV.

What I am looking forward to:  Writing Christmas letters to go in Christmas cards–although I made the mistake of buying “cute”, tiny cards featuring a tiny little songbird which practically requires origami skills to place 8×11 inch letters in such tiny envelopes. That and visiting the newly opened Goodwill Store here in Alvin to look for Christmas baskets to put presents and baked goods (should I get that far!) will be my major undertakings for the week ahead.  I will require one trip back to the university and some yard work replacing all the bulbs/plants I dug up to make way for the new fence (and that has to be done before the first freeze due Friday).  All this will keep me plenty busy in the week ahead.

I hope your week to come is calmer and stress free.  

WAYFARING STRANGER by James Lee Burke

This is the first book in the Holland Family Trilogy by James Lee Burke, a new writer to me, but one to whom I will return again and again. The novel has wonderful writing and masterful dialogue.

The story begins in 1934 when 16 year old Weldon Holland sees Bonnie and Clyde camped out on his grandfather’s wooded land and eventually shoots into the back of their departing car “after one of their notorious robberies.” Fast forward 10 years and we meet Lieutenant Weldon Holland again as he survives the Battle of the bulge with fellow sole survivor of their platoon, Hershel Pine from Louisiana. The two find themselves behind German lines where they rescue Rosita Lowenstein “hiding in a deserted extermination camp.”  The two, Weldon and Rosita marry, and with Hershel return to Texas.  They start an oil company together.

Although Weldon, idealist that he is, thinks he has seen an end to evil in the war, he soon finds he must “…[save] his family and friends from the evil forces that lurk in peacetime America”– think McCarthy witch hunts, big oil brutality, corrupt cops, mafia influences and Hollywood corruption.

The book is an exhilarating, exciting, sometimes exhausting read, one which keeps the reader turning pages and holding his/her breath to see what happens next.

I can hardly wait to read book two which has just been published.

TUESDAY TEASERS

Take what you are reading now (or one of the books you are reading now, if you’re like me), and put your finger randomly on any page you have read (or where you’re starting to pick up reading).  Copy two sentences as a teaser and give the title and author.  I’ll bet you’ll find some books for your TBR (To be Read) list in the comments. Here’s my teaser from James Lee Burke’s Wayfaring Stranger, the first book in his Holland family trilogy and some of the best writing I’ve enjoyed lately:

“My father.  He wants to get out his twenty-gauge and make a squirrel -and- robin stew and shell pecans and make a pie. It’s funny how old people retreat into the past, like it can bring back their youth. I think this might be his last Christmas.”