Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Teagan White reviews The Qualities of Wood

After Betty Gardiner dies, she leaves behind her country house for her family. Nowell, her grandson, first moves in then soon after his wife, Vivian. The day Vivian moves in, a teen girl dies in their backyard and even though the death is ruled an accident, she is still skeptical. After the unusual behavior of her neighbors, she becomes suspicious. As the story moves on, Vivian starts to become aware of the town’s secrets.
                The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White is a very well-thought-out story. The pages flow through the chapters brilliantly. You don’t even realize when you’re done with a section. The setting flips through past and present which also helps you learn more about the characters’ personalities.
                This book lets every reader picture it in a unique way. It lets you do this through its descriptions and great vocabulary. For example:
                “As Nowell tugged her towards the house, she glanced back over her shoulder at the high, swaying grass which was quickly becoming invisible, still whispering in the wind and crackling again under her feet.”
                You might not think you know what’s going to happen but you can’t be certain until the very last chapter. The Qualities of Wood is a great book. I don’t see why you wouldn’t read it.
Teagan White is eleven years old and when he isn't reading great books, he likes to play soccer and baseball, practice piano and guitar, and play video games. His sister has previously reviewed this book here, and his other two siblings still haven't read it!

Thursday, August 22, 2013


I've been working on a story collection for a while. It began as a few vivid scenes I wanted to work out and grew, as scenes sometimes do, into something larger that included more and more people. I began to think about these scenes as a collection of scenes. How would they fit and work together? What would it all mean? Does it need to mean anything?
I decided to read more short story collections this year. As many writers do, I had started with this form and I used to read quite a lot short fiction. But in recent years, I haven't. I wanted to amend that, noticing especially how the collections were constructed and linked and paying attention also to structure, style, stuff like that.

 My first choice,  This Close by Jessica Francis Kane, was a fabulous start. These stories were right up my alley--evocative and character-rich, poking and prodding into those unspoken, sensitive aspects of being human. And the form of the stories was along the lines of what I'm doing with my collection: content dictates size and shape. A "story" can be pages long, or just a few paragraphs. As for the link between stories, the collection concerns itself with the connection and chasms between people, the ways they can come "this close" to true communion but fall short. I loved this one, and I talked more about it here.

Megan Mayhew Bergman lives on a Vermont farm with a menagerie of animals, and her stories all include some type of bird or beast. But Birds of a Lesser Paradise is bound together by something deeper; Bergman seems to be examining the ways that the natural world shape human behavior and the conflicted relationship we sometimes share with the animal kingdom. I found these stories touching and immediate, the writing assured and insightful. Also, Bergman maintains a very personable blog here.

One of my favorite books of 2012 was Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, so I was excited to see a collection of stories follow. We Live in Water is peopled with outcasts and broken characters, the "fringe" people Walter's been known to write about at other times. If the stories have any cohesiveness, I suppose it's a general feeling of hopelessness, an army of lost men (because all the main characters are men) who have failed in some way and have no way to redemption. Sound depressing? Well, it was. It's true that I tend to reside in the "glass half full" camp but I just didn't find much to grasp onto in these stories--no way to empathize, no enjoyment, and in the end, the weight of the overall outlook was just too crushing.

When I feel a bit disappointed with myself for not enjoying Walter's stories, I remind myself that I loved Assorted Fire Events by David Means, which isn't exactly a feel-good-walk-through-the-park collection either. And yet, I loved it. In short: Means' writing will change the way you look at stories and writing in general. To say I loved this collection is the understatement of the year. It is brilliant, and I wrote more about it here.

Writers take note: Rebecca Lee's Bobcat and Other Stories was years in the making. You may find this comforting or discomfiting, depending where you are with your own writing. Lee, a self-confessed "glacially slow" writer (interview: here) includes stories in this collection that were written over a long period of time and as such, probably don't have an intended thematic or structural glue. But Lee is a gifted observer and careful wordsmith; her stories have the feel of polished stone. There are moments of great insight and surprise, and characters you'll remember after finishing. She too deals in human congress, private and public, in a slightly more formal way. Some may find these stories a bit too academic for taste, but they are certainly well-formed and a pleasure to read.

I read Kristiana Kahakauwila's This is Paradise while in Hawaii, the "paradise" of which she writes, and this may have added to my enjoyment of it. Honestly, one of the strengths of the collection is the way Kahakauwila evokes time and place, so I have to think I would have loved it no matter where I read it. Her Hawaii is a crossroads between past and present, reality and lore, American and Hawaiian culture. Like Lee's Bobcat, the stories of This is Paradise are longer, more traditional if you will. Kahakauwila's collection is just six stories, long enough to settle in and get acquainted, long enough to really set the scene with details and nuances. I sometimes think the highest compliment I can pay a writer is that I read their work slowly, and this is certainly the case with This is Paradise. Each story was vivid and sensory, and each one surprised me in some way. I read the whole thing very slowly, wanting to stop and savor each story at its completion.

I plan to keep up with my short fiction reading. At this point, I can't draw any conclusions about how modern story collections are constructed other than to say they are as varied and rewarding as novels, each with its own character and form. I'm happy to hear your recommendations for other collections I should try.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Love of Your Life

Recently, I found a story I wrote some time ago. It’s a sketch really, an idea barely fleshed out, something to pass the time. A young women finds herself the contestant on a television dating show, a premise which doesn’t seem particularly exciting or innovative after the deluge of reality programming over the past decade or so. This writing predates most of it, although obviously not American Idol, which is mentioned, or The Dating Game, or even This is Your Life. I also found it an interesting piece because Julie and her brother could be early manifestations of two characters I eventually spent much time on—middle-aged Gina and her younger brother, Ian, in a novel called Fortress for One. Anyway, here’s the short story, mostly rough but I think, with some smooth parts. (And wouldn’t The Love of Your Life would make a great play?…)

                “What the hell, Junior?” Julie climbed into the car and glared.

                “Juju,” Junior said calmly. “Breathe.”

                “I said two-thirty!”

                “They won’t start without you.” He grinned, crooked teeth gleaming, coffee-colored eyes like a dog that won’t leave.

                She sighed. Her little brother.

                …Twelve days ago, she got the call…

                “Is this Julie Renate Sandoval?”


And her thoughts went immediately to St. Theresa’s Parochial, where they always used full names. The nuns had loved Junior, of course; behind their backs he called them The Monochrome Despots.

                “This is The Love of Your Life,” the man said. “We’d like to put you on.”

                “Oh,” Julie said.

                “You’re aware of the application,” he asked, “submitted by your coworker, Jeannie Mackeroy?”

                It all came raining down. A bottle of wine after work, Jeannie’s assurances, Junior’s jokes. Her brother said Julie’s best shot at happiness was serial monogamy, each chapter ending with a bubble bath and a new hairstyle. Jeannie told him they couldn’t all be queens. And now it was happening.

                Junior dropped her backstage. Long hallways and a scurrying guide. Up front, the set was a huge, carpeted kidney bean.

                “How are you, Julie?” Lance Corazon, the host. His eyes were beautiful and strangely unkind.

                “Alright,” she mumbled.

                He pulled her elbow, twirled her around. “Audience, are you ready to help Julie find The Love of Her Life?”

                “Yes!” they shouted.

                Lance beamed. “Julie, you’ll be placed in The Chastity Room. Finalists have been chosen by our computer, based on compatibility scores, DNA testing and input from your friends and family.”

                Julie sat on a plump red couch. When the doors to The Chastity Room opened, sawdust stretched before her. She squinted in the half-light of a vast room.

                “Over here,” a man on a barstool called.

                Randy was a computer technician who liked to ride mechanical bulls. He had thinning blonde hair and colorless lips.

                “Where are the cameras?” Julie asked.

                “You can’t see them.”

                “Wow,” she said. “This is awkward.”

                Suddenly, a voice boomed: Please refrain from such comments. Unproductive. During the simulated date, avoid mentioning the simulation.

                “Sorry,” she whispered.

                Randy shrugged.

                Again, the voice: We’d like to interject a Conversation Starter, based on relevant information from your dating past.

                Randy scooted to the edge of his seat. Julie wasn’t sure if he was The Love of Her Life. Maybe at first everyone found The Love of Their Life reminiscent of a flaccid sea creature.

                Your Conversation Starter comes from Julie’s college boyfriend, Brad Kanwin. Brad says Julie was awkward in social situations, often making inappropriate sounds or jokes.

                She remembered Brad, of course. Junior called him Big Top PeeWee, because of his large head and small penis, although she’d been unnecessarily cruel in that regard.

                “The last I heard of Brad Kanwin,” she said, “his hand became paralyzed and he went blind.” She laughed alone, wondering if the joke was inappropriate. Randy pressed a buzzer underneath the bar.

                Her second date wore red sneakers, a “People are People” t-shirt and a loosened, narrow tie. Immediately, Julie used her 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover pass to prematurely end their simulated Italian restaurant date. Maybe she’d be finished in time to catch American Idol with Junior, she thought as she left.

                Date number three. At the bottom of a flight of stairs, Reuben Straverskey stood near a gondola and a gurgling canal.

                “Reuben—what the hell?”

                “I didn’t know it was you,” he said.

                Julie had been lusting after Reuben for months; only Jeannie knew. They all worked at the same bank.

                With a push from the gondolier, they were on their way. Again, the cameras were out of sight.

                “So, did they find those checks on Friday?” she asked.

                Reuben licked his fingertips and smoothed his eyebrows, a strange and regular habit that only now struck her as completely ridiculous. “Naw,” he said. “Gunderson was beyond lunacy, the drama king.”

                She shifted her weight and the boat dipped. “Is it weird, being here?”

                “I don’t know.”

                The voice: Please refrain from talking about your reactions to being on the show. Irrelevant.

                “I thought you had a girlfriend,” she whispered.

                Please refrain from whispering. Futile.

                They rode in silence. Julie thought: If I was watching this episode, I’d turn it off. And she suddenly realized that Reuben was too goofy to be considered, that her comments to Jeannie only helped to pass time at work and that Reuben, although hysterical behind the bank counter, wasn’t as stimulating on a simulated canal. Besides, what would Junior call him?

                The gondola hit shore at The Love of Your Life. Julie wondered how long she’d been floating. Lance helped her out of the boat, which then glided away with Reuben still onboard.

                Above, a screen flashed details from her life: Favorite Movie – Urban Cowboy; High School Music Choice – New Wave; Career Aspiration – Head Teller. At the top, one word blinked continuously: UNMATCHABLE.

                Julie stepped down from the giant kidney and saw him immediately. Tall and handsome, a mouth full of crooked teeth. “Junior,” she said. “You’re still here.”

Thursday, August 1, 2013

10 Tips for Taking an Author Photo: Cleavage, Pets, and More

So I received an email from Goodreads the other day. I’m on some of their email lists; I think this one was a weekly “Look What’s New” kind of mailing. Lots of featured books, all linked up so you could buy, rate and discuss them. And I happened to notice a photo of an author, along with a blurb about her new book. In the photo, she’s leaning over in a low-cut blouse and I thought: “Wow. Cleavage. Really?” I mean, authors should aspire to some level of decorum, shouldn’t they? This was an author I had heard of, and I thought she wrote romance novels, which she does. Also, she dabbles in YA Paranormal and Middle Grade series. So I guess a little cleavage is OK, considering. I did spot another disturbing photo on her website, though, in which she wears a bit of a costume and is sprawled (SPRAWLED!) on a carpeted floor. Catlike.

The question of what is appropriate for an author photo probably ranges as far and wide as the types of humans populating the planet, but can’t we all agree on some criteria? The reason I haven’t mentioned the name of the décolletage-baring author is because, well, I’m not exactly in a position to start making enemies among the bestselling authors of the world. I’d like nothing better than to cut and paste some HILARIOUS author photos and riff on what makes each one horrific. But again…must make friends, not enemies. Besides, it’s been done. Here, and here. Instead, I offer some general, example-less suggestions if you’re considering having your photo taken for promotional materials. These are based on photos I’ve seen of authors who again, will remain nameless. And of course, all suggestions are my own and can be ignored. 

1)      Be modest. No bikini shots, no matter how your abs look. No short skirts. Men: no hairy chests.

2)      Don’t be too stylish. Wear something basic with perhaps a small flare to show your personality. That very-trendy-hot-pink-and-cheetah-print-wide-lapel-silk dress may be quite the thing this year, but chances are some day, you’ll think it silly or loud or just not what you’re into anymore.

3)      Do not include your pets in your author photo. Unless you write about animals. Even then, I wouldn't.
    4)      Do not use props in your photo. No guns, cigarettes or pens. Please, no pens. Also, no manual typewriters. You may very well use one, but it’s become a cliché.
    5)      Do not use a blurry photo. This would seem like a no-brainer, but there is a certain best-selling author who has a very low quality photo as her main author picture. I don’t know much about pixels or jpgs or whatever, but this one looks like it was taken with a Polaroid.

6)      Look at the camera in your photo, not off into the middle distance. You’ve seen these photos where the author is gazing away and we’re given his mug in profile. This always strikes me as aloof, as if the author had something better to do.
7)      Keep your author photo updated. I always thought vanity was the reason why many authors have photos many years outdated. Now I realize it may just be a matter of having the time and ambition to retake them. Still, it’s silly when a 70-year-old author has a book jacket photo decades old. Better to go without a photo at all, I say.

8)      Don’t let photographers talk you into silly nonsense. If she wants you to sprawl on the floor (sprawl!) and make a cat-like pose, tell her you’d rather not.

9)      If you’re sitting, sit up straight. I feel like your mother here but honestly, you’d be amazed how many slouchers I’ve seen in author photos. Square your shoulders. Inhale.

10)   Choose a location that means something to you. If you do, chances are you’ll be more comfortable, relaxed, and look like your true self.

When it comes right down to it, you have to go with your own instincts and personality and really, it’s only a photo. But in this virtual footprint, cyber-over-exposed world, it may stay with you for a very, very long time.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka