Reads and Recs (and the New Camera)

January 19, 2015 § 1 Comment

Some recently read works and pieces you may enjoy:

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014) — A beautiful book that most writers can only dream of penning. Sure to be a classic, it’s not surprising it was on many end-of-year lists as one of the best books of 2014. As two separate stories before and during the dark days of World War II unfold — one about an exceptionally smart boy in Germany, the other focused on a blind girl in France — the two protagonists finally come together in the final chapters. Without giving anything away, I’ll simply say the conclusion was not tied up in a neat, tidy bow, and the book is that much better because of it, for, like war, the climax is complex and never really ends easily. Side note: Doerr’s exquisite descriptions of Saint-Malo, the French city where the key scenes in the novel take place, have me dreaming of a visit overseas.
  • The Big-Eyed Children: The Extraordinary Story of an Epic Art Fraud” by Jon Ronson (The Guardian, October 26, 2014) — I haven’t seen Big Eyes yet, the Tim Burton bio-pic about the painter Margaret Keane whose husband, Walter, took credit for her famous paintings of big-eyed children. This article is a good introduction to the backstory of their relationship and how a manipulative egomaniac convinced his talented wife to agree to the deception not just while they were married, but also for a period of time after they were divorced. Although she endured years of misery and abuse, in the end, she came out of her relationship with Walter intact and vindicated.
  • My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward” by Mark Lukach (Pacific-Standard, January 15, 2015) — Lukach describes the quick onset and painful breakdown his wife Giulia suffered, supposedly triggered by the stresses of a new, demanding job. He does his best to navigate the unknowns of what mental illness afflicts her and how to treat it, and he agonizes over her care after she suffers a second episode shortly after the birth of their son. Lukach frets over the change in dynamic of their relationship, evolving from one of equality to one of authority — take your pills; go to bed, you need your rest; follow your treatment plan. He beautifully writes about the worry of caring for someone who can’t care for herself during her episodes, but offers hope that, now that his wife is healthy again, they can develop a care plan together that will help lessen the blow if or when the next episode occurs.

All the Light We Cannot See
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If you follow this blog, you know how unremarkable the camera on my old iPhone has become. I’ve been relying on it lately to take photos when I don’t have the opportunity to lug my big camera around, but I’ve been so disappointed in the results. This weekend I finally purchased a new phone, and the difference in quality borders on perfection.

Such a simple subject from a walk this afternoon, but the clarity fills me with glee.


Beth’s Reading

January 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

A fine life consists of moments when people you care about are celebrated for their creativity, talents, and smarts. My friend Beth is an exceptional writer, teacher, and person, loved and admired by many, including me. Today she did a short reading from her story featured in American Fiction, Volume 13. “The Story of Cha Cha McGee” is funny, heartbreaking, and a favorite of mine. Beth, along with two other authors in the anthology, drew a packed crowd at the beautiful and serene Lakewood Cemetery in the Garden Mausoleum. (It sounds creepy. It wasn’t. The space is an architectural gem.)

All three writers enraptured the crowd, owning their moment in the winter light, for each is certainly well-deserving of their spot in the book and at any podium smart enough to invite them.

A few photos before, during, and after the event:

Two Trains Passing in the Night (and Reads and Recs)

January 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

A photo from a train of another train passing:

Two trains

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After a holiday break from “Reads and Recs,” I’m back to share a new batch of favorite reads I think you might enjoy:

  • Seven Ways to Jumpstart Your Writing” by Kris Bigalk (“The Writer’s Block” blog, The Loft Literary Center, January 1, 2015): While our big intentions to become fitter, kinder, thinner, and more successful will likely deflate by January 15, I plan (hope) to refer to and act on the recommendations in this piece throughout the year. I’ll revisit stories I’ve thought of tossing, work thoughtfully and assuredly toward my writing goals, and embrace the resources that can help make my darlings read a little better.
  • Star Tribune Artist of the Year: Kate DiCamillo, Rock Star of Children’s Lit” by Laurie Hertzel (Star Tribune, December 28, 2014): DiCamillo really is a rock star. She’s a beacon to writers of every genre, not just those focused on children’s literature. She inspires the hard work, perseverance, and quiet confidence required to endure the rejections and find one’s little place in the sun. This article does a wonderful job of honoring her beautiful, whimsical work, her effortless engagement with her young readers, and her effective process that keeps her churning out favorites that will endure for ages to come.
  • Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright (2014): The origins of the Middle East conflict and the complexity of the quest for peace in the region have always rattled my brain. This engrossing book by Wright delves into the deep, age-old divisions and resentments between Israel and Egypt that came to a head in the late 1970s. He provides great background on the conflict, sharing insight from biblical to modern times, sorts through the issues and contentions, and effortlessly guides us through the painful process of getting the peace treaty signed. The book’s a page turner, each chapter devoted to one of the thirteen days when Begin, Sadat, and their entourages frequently fought, said they’d never budge, and communicated their displeasure with the whole business of trying to broker peace in the Maryland wilderness while Carter did his damnedest to hold the terrible crumbling mess together.

Thirteen Days in September

Reads and Recs (and Red Boots)

December 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

Some recently read works and pieces you may enjoy:

  • Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier and translated by Malcolm Imrie (1930) — A French novel about the public’s overwhelming enthusiasm in 1914 for war and the horrors that met the men who volunteered to serve in it. At times graphic, often brutal, and always honest, this book recounts one soldier’s constant fear of sitting in miserable trenches dreading the inevitable order to leap over the parapet to face a barrage of bullets, bayonets, and grenades. It’s a recent reissue of a forgotten, suppressed, yet acclaimed, novel about the senselessness of war.
  • How Not to Get Away With Murder” by Michael J. Mooney (D Magazine, November 2014) — So, there’s this idiotic Texan who spends years and millions of dollars maintaining a secret life with a mistress and then tries to pay several absurd, dimwitted meth-addicts to off his wife. The story would be funny if one of the hired hit men hadn’t actually followed through and shot the poor woman (who lived but suffered traumatic injuries). Read it — it’s way better than sitting through an hour of “Dateline.”
  • Serial: The Syed Family on Their Pain and the ‘Five Million Detectives Trying to Work out if Adnan is a Psychopath” by Jon Ronson (The Guardian, December 7, 2014) — An interview with the mother and brother of Adnan Syed, a convicted murderer and subject of the phenomenally popular podcast series, “Serial.” I’m addicted to the podcast and waffle weekly over my belief in Syed’s innocence and guilt. If you’re as obsessed as I am, you’ll like this interview with the family that highlights the overwhelming despair they’ve endured for years following their son’s and brother’s trial, conviction, and incarceration.
  • The Weight of Guilt” by David Hill (Grantland, December 2, 2014) — Deception, intrigue, a suspicious suicide, greed, and power all lurk on the seedy underside of competitive bass fishing.


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Daily photo at the light rail station in downtown Minneapolis and the unexpected appearance of red boots:

Red boots

Progress (and Reads and Recs)

December 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

The holiday cards are coming along. They’re more like little books, actually. I’ll fill each with happy wishes and personal messages. Thirty constructed to date, 70 (or more) to go, and zero signed or sent. Here’s a photo of a few:

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Some recently read works and pieces you may enjoy:

  • The Best American Short Stories 2014 edited by Jennifer Egan and Heidi Pitlor (2014) — The 20 best short stories from the last year, according to the editors. I liked all the stories, some more than others. Favorites include:
    • “Antarctica” by Laura van den Berg (originally appeared in Glimmer Train) — A woman travels to Antarctica to better understand her estranged brother, who died mysteriously on the icy continent in an explosion at a research station.
    • “Long Tom Lookout” by Nicole Cullen (originally appeared in Idaho Review) — Lauren returns to her hometown in Idaho with her husband’s autistic son, a product of an affair who has no one reliable to look after him. She takes a job as a fire lookout, further isolating her and the boy from the lives they fled in Texas and her indifferent mother in Idaho.
  • Lucky Us by Amy Bloom (2014) — A book that begins, “My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us,” is sure to please. I liked this strange tale of two half sisters who leave their incompetent father in Ohio to journey to Hollywood and New York during the 1940s. Bloom’s fresh prose carries the story forward, and overall I liked it. I can’t pinpoint why I didn’t love it, because I adored Bloom’s collection of short stories, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. Perhaps the selfishness of the older sister irritated me. However, it’s a terrific romp if you’re looking for a novel with vibrant characters painting a much different picture from the mainstream of what it means to be a family.
  • Mark Strand’s Last Waltz” by Dan Chaisson (The New Yorker, November 30, 2014) — A short remembrance of the poet who died last week, eulogizing not just his gift for words, but also his sensitivity and kindness.
  • My Death” by Mark Strand (The New York Review of Books, October 24, 1968) — A fitting poem to commemorate the poet’s passing.

The Best American Short Stories Lucky Us

The Mall (and Reads and Recs)

November 24, 2014 § 4 Comments

The Mall of America isn’t my favorite place, but my camera likes it:

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Some recently read works and pieces you may enjoy:

  • Climate Change Threatens to Strip the Identity of Glacier National Park” by Michael Wines (The New York Times, November 22, 2014) — A disturbing gaze into the future, where it’s predicted Glacier National Park’s ice packs will melt in the next few decades, primarily due to climate change. The implications are troubling and enormous, ranging from water shortages to the alteration and possible destruction of a vital ecosystem.
  • Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (2014) — So good I read it twice. The story unravels over the course of an academic year. A caustic, yet devoted, professor writes letters of recommendation for students and colleagues (some deserving, some not) for fellowships, jobs, and awards. Although his requests often go unheeded or have unintended results, kindness nestles up against his obnoxious attempts to mend long-ended romances and help a depressed but supposedly talented student publish his novel. I laughed often at the protagonist’s pompous and sarcastic diatribes, but an unexpected ending topples the professor’s facade and lends a bittersweet quality to the narrative.
  • Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure” by Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Anne Enright, Howard Jacobson, Will Self, and Lionel Shriver (The Guardian, June 22, 2014) — This article about failure in writing also touches on everyday defeats, especially in love and relationships. It serves as a good reminder that sometimes success is fraught with despair and doubt, and it also argues that when we’re failing, we’re likely headed in the right direction.
  • Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (2014) — I flew through this nearly 500-page novel about a troubled rural Montana social worker trying to protect kids from broken homes while fumbling through his own crumbling family life. Each character is deeply flawed but displays glimmers of possibility and grace as evidenced in the social worker’s developing relationship with a mysterious and paranoid Ted Kaczynski-like loner and his son who are convinced the world is ending.
  • An Open Letter to the Guy at My Gym Who Screams When He Lifts Weights” by Jonathan Kime (McSweeney’s, November 9, 2009) — The reason why I avoid gyms. Seriously.
  • A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely (Rolling Stone, November 19, 2014) — An infuriating report on the prevalence of sexual assaults at the University of Virginia. The primary focus of the article is a woman who was gang raped by privileged frat boys. She is one of many whose accusations have been mishandled or casually dismissed by the university. The UVA administration’s indifferent behavior coupled with ineffective action is just one part of the problem (UVA keeps information on sexual assault as secretive as possible to avoid being seen as a “rape school”). The other obvious concern is criminals walking free and perpetuating a culture where sexual assaults are best kept quiet for fear of retaliation or ostracism.

Dear Committee Members Fourth of July Creek

Pop Color (and Reads and Recs)

November 17, 2014 § 7 Comments

Little color exists in Minnesota these days now that the leaves have dropped, dried, and been enveloped in snow. This made today’s Photography 101 assignment, “Pop of Color,” challenging, for even human-made color is elusive in this climate.

A few scraps of color peeked out from the drifts and dried stems as I walked a mile in the bitter cold just to find something bright and shiny. I’m content with what I found but worry it’s going to be a long winter of photographing outdoors if natural color won’t rise again until April or May.

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Some recently read works and pieces you may enjoy:

  • From Poems to Paragraphs” by Donald Hall (Slice, Fall 2014/Winter 2015) — An aging poet laureate and essayist reflects on the art of writing and how his fading mind and body affect his process and work. A lovely, and informative, essay for writers of any age and genre.
  • Hannah and Andrew” by Pamela Colloff (Texas Monthly, January 2012) — A painful, true tale of an adoptive mother wrongfully accused and convicted of her troubled child’s bizarre death.
  • A House Is Not a Credit Card” by Bethany McLean (The New York Times, November 13, 2014) — A cautionary opinion piece about the trouble with cash-back refinancing — a problem that should have been addressed during the housing crisis but seems poised to return again due to the lack of regulations and restrictions on using one’s home as a piggy bank.
  • How We Look When We Look at a Painting” by Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker, November 13, 2014) — Frederick Wiseman is a genius documentarian, and it’s comforting to see him still churning out perfection. His latest documentary subject, “National Gallery,” focuses on the London museum of the same name, and the film, like all of Wiseman’s work, does not include voice-overs or interviews. Schjeldahl describes the film as eavesdropping on museum-goers and art lovers as they revel in the works that move and fascinate them, leaving the audience to wonder how each interprets a painting or sculpture or relic, how it forms their thoughts, how it heals their hearts.
  • The Humans by Matt Haig (2013) — This book wasn’t on my radar until it came up as this month’s selection for a local community book club some friends and I attend semi-regularly. I had no interest in reading it, turned off by the science fiction plot — an alien is sent to Earth to destroy the person who solves a mathematical problem that will advance humankind and allow human beings to, among other travesties, eventually travel between galaxies and destroy the universe because, well, humans just kind of screw things up (e.g., relationships, wars, the ozone layer). Yet in the end, I was surprised by how much I liked this story and the complicated evolution of an alien who grows to find human qualities preferable to that of his own advanced species. He even finds wonderment in our inherent flaws and disappointments, including the ability to love, which with death or a relationship’s end, leads to unspeakable grief and loss. An uncommon take on what it means to be human.

The Humans

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