Book Review: The Awakening & Selected Stories by Kate Chopin

The sidewalk outside NYC’s largest public library building is embedded with plaques such as this one in honor of Kate Chopin. Stopping to read them as I walk along may make me look like a tourist, taking photographs of them definitely does. But surely their purpose is to encourage lingering and contemplation . . . and so I linger, contemplate, and take a photograph.

At home, the 1981 Modern Library version of a selection of Chopin’s work waits by our bedside, our current nighttime read-aloud. Within that volume, the strong wings of Chopin’s words guide us along the inroads of mind, heart, and body. Kate Chopin’s stories are peopled with those who act from deep motivations, and very often they pause to consider the nature and source of their emotions.

The stories are short, well-paced, and thought provoking, making this volume a wonderful read-aloud for adults – and worthy of a book club. The introduction by literary critic Nina Baym offers valuable historical context, and the glossary of terms helps fill in where context clues don’t seem to be enough.

If you pick up this volume and the first two stories lead you to believe that all will end with a lovely sweetness, keep reading. These two stories, “Love on the Bon-Dieu” and “Beyond the Bayou” will begin to teach you how to read Chopin’s stories, but they do not reveal the full arc of human potential that Chopin explores. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Two Good Dogs

Apparently, given how many books she’s written, I’ve come late to the game of reading Susan Wilson’s work. Yesterday, I was browsing library shelves, wondering how I was going to find a comparable title for my own novel, when I saw the word “dog” and pulled Two Good Dogs from the shelf. I skimmed the back cover and the beginning of the front flap copy and plucked The Dog Who Danced from the shelf as well.

At home I settled in with the more recent book first. A few pages into 2GD, I wasn’t optimistic. The writing itself was more than adequate, but the pace at which plot lines came at me was daunting. I don’t need a slow-poke start, but I was too clearly reminded of novels that rocket along in this way all the way to the end, throwing characters and complications in right up to the last chapter. I was looking for a book to relax with, not keep up with. I was very glad, then, when the story line settled down. The world-building had done the job, and I could relax as the story unfolded.

There are complications of modern life to be had here: teenage addiction, dog-fighting and dog rescue, parent-child wrangling, economic woes. So this isn’t a sappy book. But there is the reassuring sense that things will turn out all right: a big dose of realism meets an equally big dose of good fortune. Is that escapism? Probably, but in a world that is going, as my grandmother might have said, “To hell in a hand basket,” I, for one, can use the break. I’m 14 chapters into the book, and I’m glad to keep going.

Recommended.

Book Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

I’m working on a ghost story and, by way of procrastination as much as by way of research, I settled in with two slim volumes of ghost stories: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and More Scary Stories, by Alvin Schwartz. In their pages, I was amused to find a few traditional ghost stories that I myself had heard and passed on. Two of them I heard from my uncle, Gerald Shattuck. He was a very good story teller. The first story he told was a “Cemetery at Night” story.  We were amused, but not scared much. But then, in a low, serious voice, he told the tale of his own experience with the “Ghostly Hitchhiker,”

One night, my friend and I were driving along on a dark road. Suddenly, in our headlights we saw a distraught young woman by the side of the road. She flagged us down. Of course, we stopped. We wondered if she were hurt, but she insisted that she just needed a ride home. She gave us an address and we started off. From the back seat she told us how grateful she was. We were very worried about her, and when we asked her a question and she didn’t answer, I turned to the back to check on her – she was gone! She had disappeared! We stopped at the first little store we came to and reported what we had seen. The people there had heard this story before. We discovered that a young woman had been killed by a hit-and-run driver at the very spot we first saw her. Her spirit has haunted the roadside ever since, looking for the guilty person who killed her.

Told this way, it is a compelling story: we young listeners were suitably caught between belief and disbelieve. I, myself, passed on the story when I told it to a carload of middle-schoolers I was driving to an activity night. To my great surprise, the most credulous among them fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and I spent some time back peddling and explaining the nature of ghost stories.

When they were first published, the series was very popular with children, but deemed too gross and scary by some adults. The stories are based on folktales – old and modern – and they are scary, especially the illustrations. And if you find ghosts eating the pus of their rotting stomachs gross, (which I do!) they are gross. All in all, I agree with Harper’s 1984 review of another Schwartz publication, “a nicely nasty collection.” I’ll be on the lookout for more volumes.

If I find any, I’ll be looking for more than ghost stories. In the Acknowledgments section of the two volumes, an interesting tale is hinted at – that of a marriage and of the changing public roles of women. In the first  volume, published in 1981, the author acknowledges his wife with these words, “My wife, Barbara, who did the musical notation . . .  carried out bibliographical research, and contributed in other ways.” By 1984, he identifies her in this manner, “. . . my wife and colleague, Barbara Carmer Schwartz.” How she came to be acknowledged with her full name and a more professional status is a story I’d like to hear.

Book Review: Paris by the Book

Promising title, nice cover, but . . .

I’ve just returned Liam Callanan’s Paris by the Book to the library. The book has a fun cover and a promising title, but the execution fell short. While I came to really like the two daughters, Callanan used coincidence and inexplicable infusions of cash to fuel the plot. He also dipped a toe into “issues” without ever setting the groundwork for them or developing their meaning within the story. For instance, the plot touches on the treatment of black immigrants in Paris and the disagreement in the US about the wisdom of vaccinating children – and moves on with no further mention. In the afterword the author confirms there is no such thing as the magical visa that allows the Americans to stay in Paris, but there was at least one other, even more far-fetched, plot device to explain away. The good writing kept me reading, but the contrived and muddled plot had me shaking my head.

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve sometimes been guilty of explaining why I’m not currently reading a book by joining the club that claims, “too busy,” or “too tired at the end of the day.” I like my life better when I’m explaining, instead, why I read so much. When I was  kid, I was a ‘bookworm’ and nothing more needed to be said about why I chose the company of books over people, why I carried a book with me when I climbed the tree in the back yard, or why I stayed up late reading a book by flashlight after bedtime.

When I taught 8th graders, I had an excuse for gobbling down several MG and YA books a week – I needed to read widely so I had many books to choose from when a student needed a recommendation. I always told my students who said they didn’t like to read that they just hadn’t met the right book yet, and then I’d stack a bunch up – pulling them from my extensive classroom collection of paperbacks – and give them the advice to read the first page or so, and when they wanted to keep going, they’d found their book.

But my teaching focus now is writing, and even though I believe reading and writing can’t be divorced from each other, they have drifted apart in my professional life and, by no coincidence, I suppose, in my personal life. So, to bring reading back into focus for me, I’ll share here thoughts on the books I’m reading now.

Open House by Patricia J. Williams

Unfailingly sharp witted and generous, Williams combines her close observations of life, injustice, joy, and expensive take-out with her ability to pull back, always, to the big picture and to ways of making meaning that we can move forward with. Her story-telling carries, for me, faint undertones of the potential for a lecture, but the best kind of lecture – one in which you are given new information by being given new ways to think about things, with never once being crowded into a box of the author’s own making. Never preachy, always on point, this slim volume, subtitled, “Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own” is a treat.

Book Review: Not Exactly Love

Not Exactly Love: A MemoirNot Exactly Love: A Memoir by Betty Hafner
I met Betty Hafner, author of Not Exactly Love: A Memoir, at a get-together for writers in Saranac Lake last year. It took me awhile to act on my good intentions to buy her book, and then to read it. It is an impressive book – for all the reasons other reviewers mentioned. Very skillful narration and selection of details, and evocative of a time (not entirely ended) when the pressure to be paired up was palpable and the momentum towards the altar pushed young people along and into disastrous commitments. Bravo!