Category Archives: writing

The Monday Book: EVERY HOUSE NEEDS A BALCONY by Rita Frank

This book came into the shop, and I’d seen somewhere online that it had been nicknamed “The Israeli Kite Runner.” So I took it downstairs to our flat and made it my bedside book.

Hmm….. on the one hand, it’s very atmospheric, makes you feel the Haifa poverty and inner city activity of the time period (post-WWII). On the other, translated books have that one-step-removed feel, and this novel has that in spades. It feels like reading from behind a curtain.

The story centers around a woman who decides to marry a guy from Barcelona, both Jewish, different classes, dealing with a lot of the ethnic and economic and political effects of the day. Marriage strains, sick babies, family members who aren’t cooperating, etc. If it weren’t for being set in Haifa, it would be an Aga Saga. But instead, it’s kind of an atmospheric time piece. Maybe even a peek behind the curtain.

I love character-driven books best of all, and this one isn’t. It’s setting-driven, and I have to admit that works really well. I didn’t care about the people, but it was like watching a television instead of reading in terms of the filled-in living details and little tossed-on-top nuggets of unexplained culture. It’s written from the inside, and those of us on the outside can learn a lot just from watching the casualness of the unexplained as it appears.

It’s not a book in which a lot happens action-wise, at least not most of the time, but it’s a great depiction of how time, place, and money can rock a marriage. Any marriage, any time, any place.

Four stars, shall we say?

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The Monday Book: DANCING AT THE SHAME PROM (Ferris and Dexter, eds)

So this isn’t really a book you LIKE. It’s a book I personally read to see how writers handled the subject (a point in your life about which you are ashamed). I wanted to study them, from style to emotion to word choice.

Some of them handled it very well, and others left me feeling like the story they had to tell wasn’t the one they were telling.

This book is a collection of short stories/essays by women who have felt shame for something, ranging from divorce to making fun of people to being bad in school. The stories tend to focus on women who have influence and affluence (discovering her husband was having an affair, one writer lobbied his Emmy at his head, if that gives you an idea).  They’re not “on the ground” stories of not being able to provide, etc.

They’re also not as no-holds-barred as I was expecting as a whole, although in some cases they’re so intense that much is demanded of the reader. I read this book because Seal Press, who published it, have a great reputation for women authors with meat on their wordy skeletons. These women have things to say, and because I was dealing with a point in my own writing where shame came up, I wanted to see how they could do it graciously, conversationally, without justification or haranguing.

Well, some did and some didn’t, but when one reads for instruction and edification, one gets those things. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not a sit-down and feel-good book. In fact, at the risk of sounding demeaning or facile, this is the kind of book one keeps in the smallest room in the house, and ponders piece by piece. To do otherwise might be overwhelming. I found that reading a chapter a night dragged me down, whereas a bit here, a bit there, with time to ponder and piece together ideas and smell the flowers between, was better for my mental health.

So this is less half-hearted endorsement than an upfront admission that I read this for personal reasons, to gain insight into good writers talking about bad stuff, and I got what I came for. If you’re not interested in how shame holds us, or you’re more interested in the inspirational side a la Brene Brown, you may not like this book. But it certainly got interesting.

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The Monday Book: WAFFLE STREET by James Adams

True confession: I found this book from the movie. During my recent writing retreat in Florida, I was looking for “mindless entertainment” to fall asleep by. With my trusty laptop propped on my stomach, I surfed Netflix, and found that people who liked The Big Short tended to watch Waffle Street.

Fair enough; I wasn’t looking for much. What I got was way beyond expectations. The heartwarming story of white guys finding redemption in places they wouldn’t normally hang out (a la that Starbucks saved my life book and all) turned out to be something between a financial handbook for dummies and a quirky character sketchlist for small towns. I loved the film and the book.

A lot of the really good explanations of financial stuff (using chickens and waffles) fell out of the movie, but when you find out that James’ best friend at the restaurant was an ex-con grill cook, you have all the straight man set-up you need for the best lines ever about financial misconduct.

The book is heartwarming, sadly, but it’s also that wee bit unpredictable. Adams’ wife isn’t the sweet supportive pushover the movie makes her out to be. The restaurant owner isn’t a self-made down home boy. Throw in the crazy lady who keeps counting change to buy her favorite waffle, the evil midlevel manager who turns out to be human, and a few other stock characters who don’t quite fulfill their archtypes due to a few surprise moves, and pour syrup over the top – but lite syrup. Neither movie nor book are sticky with sentiment.

I did feel a twinge or two, reading the the book, that Adams was describing without solving. He isn’t saying “fight the system.” He’s saying “wow, look how funny the system is.”

He’s probably right about not wasting energy. Two pancake turners up for Waffle Street. waffle-street

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The Monday Book: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo

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This week’s blog by guest Willie Dalton, author of Three Witches in a Small Town.

I had been putting it off for months. I’d seen the book advertised in countless places and endorsed by many celebrities. “You have to read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up!”

I thought it sounded interesting and no doubt I could definitely use some decluttering in my life . But  I’d read all the blogs, all the tips, and liked all the Facebook pages about minimizing and none of the advice had ever had a lasting impression. Could this book be that different?  Finally, I caved and bought the book.

To my surprise it is very different from all of the other advice out there. The author’s method is from a lifetime of observing and studying habits and patterns to get it down to a step by step system of what works and what can be maintained. You begin with things of less sentimental value and end with the items that are hardest to sort.  She claims if you do it exactly as she says you will NEVER have to do it again. Sounds good to me!

This method “the KonMari” way of decluttering is also becoming known as the “joy method.” You hold each item and ask yourself if it brings you joy, if it does, you keep it and if not you get rid of it. She emphasizes most people believe items bring them joy just because they did at one time, but if that time has passed you thank it for the joy it brought to you and release it. It might sound silly to thank an inanimate object but I have to admit it made it a little easier for me to say goodbye to some ratty old t-shirts that I once adored.

The goal isn’t to get rid of as much as possible but to focus on surrounding ourselves with things that bring us joy and happiness. She says if we are truly honest about the things that delight us and let go of all the extra “stuff” our homes automatically become more manageable and less cluttered. Of course we all have things that need to be saved for other purposes that don’t bring us anything resembling joy and she has a method for managing that as well.

I’m only getting started in the sorting process but so far I’ve already discarded three full garbage bags of shirts. I have very high expectations of becoming the organized person I’ve always wanted to be now that I have a true system to follow.  But you might want to check back with me in a year….

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The Monday Book: SLOW LOVE by Dominique Browning

I really like memoirs, so when Browning’s came in with the charming title, “How I lost my job, put in my pajamas, and learned to enjoy life” I packed it on a recent flight. (It is also smaller than the average trade paperback.)

Although following a predictable pattern – NYC insider gets the boot because of hard times – what I liked about the book was Browning’s meta-writing: slow, lyrical sentences to illustrate how her life slowed down, picked up on music and gentle living, and added some herbs.

Granted, Browning is wealthy. Even though she wrote about the fear of the plummeting stock market harming her retirement savings, well, she had savings. And another house to move into that she could afford to renovate. Etc. This is a yuppie memoir.

And beautifully written. Her lazy, gentle sentences don’t meander. They are densely packed with words you might have to look up every now and then. Her observations are pithy but not concise. I found myself following her for the way she told the story, not the story she was telling.  Browning is a writer’s writer.

Following my quest to find how other writers handle making the inaccessible (or at least the non-experienced) interesting to readers who don’t share the passion of the book, I read Browning to the end, and enjoyed it. If you like lyrical writing and peeking at others’ strange lives, this is a good one for those of us who don’t live, and don’t care to think about living, in Manhattan.

A full bouquet of home-grown roses for Dominique Browning’s SLOW LOVE.

 

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The Monday Book: I BELIEVE YOU by Jeanne Grunert

grunertJeanne Grunert requested a review of her self-published book I Believe You, a family crime thriller. Requests to review books are not uncommon, but hers had a nice benefit: she’d send three copies of I Believe You to the bookstore and sales would go to the Appalachian Feline Friends.

Well, heck, yeah….

But then one fears reviewing books on a benefit basis because what if you don’t like it?

Not to worry this time. Unlike many self-published authors, Grunert is a master not only of writing, but of editing and graphic design. Her book is visually pleasing, well-formatted, and lacking in those extraordinary typos that make people want to take pot-shots at self-published authors.

And then there’s the story line…. put a close-knit dysfunctional family into a company business, add the mysterious death of the protagonist’s wife, and go. Grunert has some really nice turns of phrase in the writing, like this:

“Tibor Majek entered rooms like a tornado ripping across the plains.”

But mostly the story is told through dialogue rather than description. It moves quickly, with just enough characterization to make you care but not enough to slow the action. You sympathize with the bereaved David and his sons, get a kick out of his interaction with his sister Eva (who is keeping the house afloat via her maid service) and watch the elusive woman Turquoise slowly land like a butterfly in their midst.

For all that it’s a thriller, the book turns less on unexpected whodunit than on the development of why. You know me, gentle readers: character-driven plots are my thing. So I can totally say I believe in I Believe You.

And we have three copies here if you want one. I probably should have asked Jeanne the price….

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The Monday Book: QUICK, BEFORE THE MUSIC STOPS by

janet-carlsonThe test of a really good book is when the author makes you interested in something you don’t particularly care about. This book was left in our cabin at some point by someone staying there, and on a writing weekend, just to have a diversion, I picked it up.

Mostly I wanted to see how Carlson would handle a subject not everyone can connect with, but the writing style and her very gentle use of dancing as a metaphor for human relationships reeled me in. Yeah, dancing couple as married/courting steps is not a far stretch, but her blunt writing with the delicacy of describing human emotions were a nice juxtaposition.

Carlson tells how her marriage dissolved, how dancing kept her busy and diverted her attention toward other men, for good or ill, and how she got her groove back. And she makes it interesting – not too much technical information, but she she needs to describe how she had a head-on on the dance floor, she gives you just enough detail to be able to see it in your mind.

And although she uses a very obvious allegory as the overall premise of the book, there aren’t many cliches in her. Dancing backwards in high heels is not recurring as “pity me” stuff. The Russian Dance Master who is slightly mysogynist is not a straw man for all men.

I really enjoyed this book, as much for the writing as what she was writing about. Jack and I ceilidh dance socially, but that’s a far cry from this world. So kudos to Carlson for bringing her readers into her world with such elegance. She made it look easy. :]

 

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