Tag Archives: fiction

Short Stories, Big Impact in Whiskey, Etc.

Flash fiction. It’s really, really, really short fiction. Shorter than this blog post, in many cases.

There’s a famous Mark Twain quote that goes, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Mark Twain agrees. Flash fiction is hard to write. How do you tell a compelling, meaningful, and impactful story in 200, 500 or even 1,000 words?

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Local author Sherrie Flick has the answer in her new collection, Whiskey, Etc. At 207 pages, the collection contains 57 short short stories, most of them between one and three pages long. Some are only a paragraph, and some stretch to five or so pages. All of them will make you feel as if you are holding a small, intricately detailed world in the palm of your hand.

Flick has grouped the stories into categories: Songs, Pets, Dessert, Art, Soap, Whiskey, etc. (Get it?) These aren’t dogmatic categories, but more like loose grouping of themes and objects. Within the categories, the stories range from funny to devastating. The tone throughout is muted and quiet, but it feels like something will happen next, even if it isn’t written down.

In my opinion, the ending makes or breaks the story. And Flick nails the ending every time. Instead of closing the story, her endings open that world up to possibility and the future:

As she sets her glass on the coaster and stands, she rubs the faint curl of a red mark the glass has made on her forehead. When the steady pounding begins at her door, she swings it open wide to see what has come. (84)

The characters in these stories handle—or don’t—complex emotions. Love is not a simple yes or no, it’s a yes, but. Often, it’s not love at all, but lust or fear wrapped in satin. Revenge is not an overt or epic action, but a series of small betrayals and denials.

Details hold these miniature worlds together: “the sound of a glass bottle shattering in an alleyway, a muffled yell” (15), “moonlight spills onto the lake like tomato juice” (146), “You drive toward Wyoming with a lump in your throat, with a Tic Tac in your mouth, with a flask in your glove compartment” (160).

These small descriptions create both a physical world within the story and a lens through which to view the characters. Every word is precise and chosen with care. They echo throughout the story, creating ripples and rip tides of meaning and feeling.

Time becomes liquid in many of the stories–reaching out to the past or the future, as in “Sweet Thang,” a story about a breakup:

So lovely that I remember for the last time the first time I saw him, walking across the lawn at Suzy’s infamous BBQ. Walking so fluidly, like he could be, would be, a man in love with me some day. (5)

And in “Anna,” a story about a woman with a double life:

Long nights ooze into one another like stiff, black ink bringing thoughts about her future and how many books she hasn’t read, recipes she hasn’t tried, and friends she no longer calls. (78)

The elasticity of time is one of my favorite aspects of Whiskey, Etc., and flash fiction in general. Because space is so short, there’s no room for a traditional narrative that follows the inverted check mark you learned about in English class. Everything must be condensed, contained, and encapsulated—but not stifled or suffocated.

Doing that is the real trick, and Flick does it with ease.

Join us at CLP – Main on August 6 for an evening with the author, and while you’re waiting, dive into the miniature worlds of Whiskey, Etc.

-Kelly

P.S.: Full disclosure: I know Sherrie Flick personally, but she did not ask me to write this review. I truly love this book.

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Meet Everyone Brave is Forgiven and Little Bee Author Chris Cleave This Friday

everyonebraveChris Cleave, whose Little Bee and Incendiary have become favorites of many library customers (and a whole bunch of library staff) will be stopping by the Main Library’s Lecture Hall for a talk and signing at 7 pm on Friday, May 13.

When we first began talking with our wonderful partners at Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures over a year ago to see how we could build on our successful collaborative efforts to bring children’s and teen authors and local authors to the library, we saw an opportunity to get bring in top authors who are touring in support of a new book.

And boy, were we right about that! Cleave will be visiting just 10 days after the release of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, in which he weaves a beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of World War II London, a story that was inspired by the experiences of his grandparents.

The basic plot follows Mary North, her friend Hilda, and two young men they meet. Mary signs up at the War Office when World War II breaks out, and is assigned a position at a teacher in an elementary school. While there, she meets Tom Shaw, who runs the school district, and his roommate Alistair, who enlists in the war. The novel details the various struggles and intrigues of these characters, explores their feelings for each other, and traces their lives as they grow and mature.

The book is a hit and has gotten rave review from People, Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and just about every other publication that reviews literary fiction. Here’s a snippet from Kirkus:

Among all the recent fictions about the war, Cleave’s miniseries of a novel is a surprising standout, with irresistibly engaging characters who sharply illuminate issues of class, race, and wartime morality.

But all of you Cleave fans out there already know all of that. What you need to know is that you can meet Chris at the Lecture Hall on Friday at 7 pm.

Tickets are $10, and you can get them by clicking here or by calling Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures at 412-622-8866.

-Dan, who will probably be at the Lecture Hall door to smile and greet you at the door on the 13th

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I Absolutely Didn’t Hate The Haters

After my soapbox-declaring love for Jesse Andrews’ debut novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, let’s just say I was eagerly awaiting his followup, The Haters.

Best friends Wes and Corey love hating on everything, even the stuff they love. When we find them at the novel’s beginning at a super-competitive jazz camp filled with really intense campers they start hating on it immediately. But, as the great philosopher Swift once said, “haters gonna hate” and Wes and Corey find a likeminded hater in Ash, seemingly the only girl at camp. After bonding over their mutual hateship, the trio ditch camp, form their own band and go on tour, which turns out exactly like you’d expect a tour planned by pre-college teenagers to turn out.

bookcoverMe and Earl and the Dying Girl was a fairly mature young adult novel, what with (spoiler alert) one of the title characters (spoiler alert) dying from (spoiler alert) cancer, but with The Haters Andrews has doubled-down on the young adult experience, including all the ridiculosity and awkwardness that comes with it. Not to give too much away, it’s a much less sad book, but no less realistic. From Corey defying his parents for the first time to Wes’ first time having sex—in a scene that so closely resembles my own first time that I’m half-convinced Andrews was hiding in my closet—The Haters will undoubtedly have something in it to which you can relate, and it rewarded my eager anticipation in spades.

Similar to Wes and Corey, I was in jazz and concert band in high school, but I didn’t hate on it. As my classmates listened to the whispers of the Ying Yang Twins, Kelly Clarkson‘s complain about her career in optometry and the Black Eyed Peas sing about camels, I was plugged into my portable CD player (remember those?) listening for countermelodies, harmonies and other musical flourishes on the first CD I ever bought—the Jurassic Park soundtrack. Yes, I was that band geek.

Maybe it’s cliché to describe writing like this as “real,” but I can think of no better term. Andrews imbues his characters with a penchant for self-deprecation and I absolutely love that, mostly because I’m the mayor of self-deprecating humor. If you ever see me on the street, ask me to tell you about my one pickup line that involves me carrying a microscope around a bar. My friends get a kick out of it. Anyway, when Andrews uses this humor it adds a natural level of realism to his writing and it makes the characters feel like friends I haven’t met yet. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in the world of The Haters and couldn’t stop myself from reading, even though I dreaded what I’d do with my life when I finished. I considered being an alpaca farmer a few times.

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“When I leave, alpaca this book.”
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While Andrews obviously excels at capturing teen angst and awkwardness, I’d love to see him branch out to more adult novels. I’m not asking for Fifty Shades of Grey written by Jesse Andrews (but now that I’ve typed those words I want nothing more), but I’m eager to see him tackle a different genre. For example, Matthew Quick maintains his style in both adult and young adult books, and although I’ve never read anything by James Patterson, I’m pretty sure he’s written books for every reading audience. He even wrote a book for zoo animals.

Wes, Corey and Ash might not be the most likeable characters in the beginning, but that could be the point. Do you remember what you were like as a teenager? Besides a lot more acne, you probably weren’t the pleasant bouquet of posies you are today. You most likely changed, as does our trio. Likewise, your opinion of them may change. No matter what flaws readers may perceive in The Haters, I’ll definitely be in line for whatever Andrews writes next. He wrote the screenplay for the movie version of Me and Earl and the Dying Girlwhich I also loved—so maybe an film adaption of The Haters is right around the corner …

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Shredfest!
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Part Scott Pilgrim with shades of a Monty Python sketch plus a lot of heart,  you’ll be hard-pressed to find a reason to hate on The Haters.

–Ross

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April Recap

Art courtesy Marcel L. Walker. Click through for his website.

Art courtesy Marcel L. Walker. Click through for his website.

April saw another huge celebrity loss in Prince, which left all of us here at Eleventh Stack more than a little sad. On the happier side of thing, baseball season started, and Abbey highlighted some baseball-related resources. Sheila also helped us celebrate children author Beverly Cleary’s 100th birthday.

Kayla gave a big thumbs up to Kara Thomas’s The Darkest Corners and Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass. Kelly looked at the theme of displacement in Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s work, and Ross mused on cultural expectations in his review of Nookietown. Jess looked a few non-superhero comics, and Natalie enjoyed Jane Steele, a new adaptation of Jane Eyre.

In movie land, Ross explored the desolation of Sunset Edge and the iconic movie-related art of Drew Struzan. Tara reviewed Victoria, a film shot all in one take.

novelcureLeigh Anne plugged poet Martin Espada’s new collection Failed and Sharon Dolan’s Manual for Living. Suzy made us think about mistakes and how we handle them. Melissa considered a career change to bibliotherapist, and one of our volunteers wrote about her efforts advocating for the library. Brittany compared her childhood to those of refugee kids, and Adina highlighted some recent memoirs and autobiographies she’s enjoyed.

Of course we didn’t forget about food—Scott M. took us on a tour of local Greek food festivals and highlighted some of his favorite Greek cookbooks.

What’s your favorite book, movie, or album from April? Let us know in the comments.

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A Different Jane

Today is the 200th birthday  of Charlotte Brontë. Her groundbreaking novel Jane Eyre is a book that I often go back to when I need a little comforting; I am not sure charlotte_bronte_square_sticker_3_x_3what it is about Brontë’s title character, but Jane has been a part of my life for so long that re-reading it feels like visiting an old friend. I have a tattered copy under my bed that I still reach for at times.

Honestly, it is a bit embarrassing; it feels a little stereotypical for a female librarian to be obsessed with what some would argue is a dated classic. But the truth is that Jane Eyre was groundbreaking in its day for featuring a heroic female lead who took charge of her own fate. It caused quite a stir, and Charlotte even addressed some of her critics in the forward of the second printing. It also helps my pride that my favorite literary classic is beloved by many others and has inspired a number of spin-offs.

bookcoverOne of the most recent spin offs out there is Jane Steele: A Confession by Lyndsay Faye. This re-telling gives us a female lead aptly named  Jane Steele, who happens to be a contemporary fan of Brontë’s novel. This new Jane is inspired by the biographical similarities she shares with Jane Eyre (the character) to pen her own autobiographical confession.

You see, Jane Steele faced similar circumstances to Jane Eyre early in her life, but unlike the mousy future-governess sitting in the window seat behind the curtains, Jane Steele faces her enemies head on and becomes a heroic serial killer. Her first murder, that of her older cousin, is truly an accident perpetrated in self defense, but Jane believes that her actions have uncovered her true nature. When she is sent to boarding school her ability to lie and steal keep her safe for a time but can’t save her from the evil intentions of the headmaster. And so it goes for Jane Steele, time and time again she is presented with ill-intentioned people and dire situations common to women of her period, but this Jane is a fighter and meets these challenges head-on.

Despite a climbing body count, Jane Steele isn’t completely at peace with her actions and does believe her immortal soul to be damned, and when she finds herself in the company of people who truly care for her she begins to fear that the truth will destroy her chance at happiness. I began this book excited at the idea of a Jane with an edge, a Jane who stands up for herself. So many times I have wondered what a Jane Eyre unhampered by the conventions of her day would have accomplished, and Jane Steele gives readers a glimpse  of what could have been.

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I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover…but that is pretty rad cover art.

Initially, I wasn’t in love with Lyndsay Faye’s writing style; it was a little heavy in my opinion, and I felt like we were taking a great deal of time and descriptive language to get on with it. I found myself skipping several of her more wordy passages, but by the time Jane makes her way to boarding school the pace picked up and I found myself rooting for this new, homicidal Jane just as fervently as I had my old beloved one.

Faye’s new take on the novel also introduced a more globally rich history of Jane Eyre’s world. When Jane Steele arrives at Highgate House, her own personal version of Thornfield Hall, she becomes tangled in the past of Mr. Charles Thornfield.  This sardonic, yet gentle, man grew up in India and doesn’t take much stock in the rules of society that seem to dictate the lives of Englishmen. He has surrounded himself with servants from his home country who seem more than dedicated to him and his young charge Sahjara and hires Jane because of the inconsistencies she presents rather than inspite of them.

Of course, all is not as it seems in this household and when an agent of the East India Trading Company makes an unexpected visit he is met with weaponry from almost every member of the immediate household. Jane feels at home for the first time in a long time among this band of warrior misfits and sets out to solve the mystery plaguing her new friends. The story follows the general path set out by Brontë but takes unexpected turns, keeping Jane on her feet. This was an enjoyable take on Jane Eyre, just different enough to feel new, but retaining many of the familiar emotions of the original. If you are a fan of crime drama, dark humor or just an ardent fan of the original Jane, then try this new take. I think you’ll like it.

Reserve a copy of Jane Steele now.

-Natalie

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I Did It All For The Nookietown

We like to have fun at my branch. For instance, when we found out a coworker hates Tori Spelling, we ordered him a ton of her books. Sometimes we’ll just put a book aside if we think the cover is funny. When Nookietown by V.C. Chickering was returned at our branch, a coworker put it on my shelf, thinking I’d get a kick out of the cover.

Nookietown

Yet another unrealistic expectation for men.

Laughing, I decided to read the inside cover:

Recently divorced forty-something single mom Lucy is lonely, a little antsy, and craving physical connection. Then the unthinkable happens:  Her trusted, long-married friend Nancy begs Lucy to sleep with her husband … to save her marriage. The plan is outlandish, scandalous, and, to everyone’s astonishment, works like a charm—it’s a win-win-win.  Soon the two women develop an underground barter system whereby Nancy’s local married friends subcontract Lucy’s horny divorcée friends to sleep with their sex-starved husbands so the wives don’t have to as often.  It’s a foolproof system for a while. Until feelings get hurt, loyalties are tested, and boundaries are crossed.

Warning: There’s a lot of sex in Nookietown. If you’re a time-travelling Puritan or you’re on the Internet for the first time for Rumspringa, skip to the end to see a video of how to wrap a cat for Christmas.

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“If you’re still with me, gaze into my baby blues and read on.”

My interests resoundingly piqued from the synopsis, I read and enjoyed Chickering’s debut novel a lot more than I expected. With a sex scene just about every ten pages, Nookietown often skews toward camp, but that only adds to the charm of the novel. Some scenes and dialogue wouldn’t feel out of place in a Russ Meyer film. One of Lucy’s friends recounts her sexual conquest with a UPS worker—including all the eye-rolling “package size” innuendos you can think of. One friend is referred to as “Miss Boobs-the-Size-of-Rhode-Island.” At a sex-toy party, dildos are compared to Greek obelisks. There’s a scene involving a turkey baster and condom filled with spent sperm. Lucy even acknowledges the “campy-funny” nature of a scene as she’s throwing shoes at one of her friends in a Target.

Camp aside, these divorced women are very much in control of their sex lives and the wives call the shots when it’s time for the divorcées to bed their husbands. If I were a woman (I’m not; I just checked), I’d consider this an empowering novel. Chronically-horny Lucy even says that all the newly found sex makes her feel “informed and powerful.” I don’t think Chickering was trying to solve marriage with Nookietown, but she definitely illuminates some common problems with marriage as an institution. Then again, I had some terrific wedding soup for lunch the other day, so I’m not prepared to Google divorce rates or infidelity or anything like that.

There were some things that didn’t work for me. Lucy, constantly second-guessing her choices, comes across as wishy-washy. On at least three separate occasions with near-identical wording, she remarks that when a man says he’s sarcastic in an online dating profile what he really means is he’s a “verbally abusive bully.” Speaking of online dating, there’s a scene where Lucy is a little drunk on tequila and goes through all the profiles of the men who have sent her messages and completely berates them to herself for their grammatical errors or for posing without a shirt (“It’s not that we aren’t intrigued by your comely physique; we just want to be assured that you own a shirt.”). While Lucy’s concerns are legitimate, it’s a scene that goes on for way too long.

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“When you’re this hairless, you don’t got to worry about grammar none. Now help me count my six-pack.”

Even though some things didn’t work for me, it’s not like the book was ruined. I needed a lighthearted break after reading S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep and I enjoy reading outside my comfort zone so this book was perfect. Often funny and sometimes heartfelt, sexy and nerdy (references to Mel Brooks and the Coen Brothers abound) with just the right amount of smut, Nookietown is the kind of novel I’d have loved as a teenager and enjoyed as an adult, despite not being the novel’s intended audience.

Now, welcome back, time-traveling friends! Here’s that video I promised:

Have you read Nookietown? How did you figure out time travel? Let me know in the comments below!

–Ross

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The Beauty and Cruelty in Displacement

goodindiangirlsI first stumbled upon Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s short story collection Good Indian Girls on the First Floor at the Main Library. I am a short story junky, and I needed my next fix. The title, and the cover, featuring three sets of penetrating eyes grabbed me. So I took it home.

After reading the first story, (which reminded me of the best aspects of Flannery O’Connor’s classic “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”), I knew I was dealing with an author who knows how to put a sentence together for maximum impact. Sidhu’s prose is never like punch in the gut or a kick in the teeth–it’s more like a scalpel carving out your heart.

I loved the collection so much, and admired his writing so much, that I filled out the contact form on his website and asked if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. I just had to know how he managed to write those killer sentences.*

And so, it was with great pleasure that I had the chance to read an advanced copy of his novel before its publication date in mid-March.

deepsinghbluecoverDeep Singh Blue tells the story of an immigrant Punjabi family living in rural California in the 1980s. The action centers around the teenage Deep Singh, who has already begun taking college courses and finds himself in an affair with a married woman in her twenties.

His life at home is not without complications, either. His brother, who has been showing ever-more disturbing behavior, has just told Deep to die after not speaking for over a year. His father moves the family every time they begin to get settled and make friends. His mother refuses to acknowledge her older son’s oddities and is always playing matchmaker for both boys, in hopes a marriage will solve their problems.

With a starting point that off balance, things only get worse for Deep. The reader is compelled to read on as each pillar of the teen’s life slowly crumbles and turns to dust. The catastrophes that befall Deep aren’t huge at first, but build to a wrenching crescendo at the end.

And all the while, Sidhu’s sentences are there, the scalpel cutting out your organs.

This is a novel about the immigrant experience, but it’s completely without nostalgia or sentimentality. It’s a beautiful portrait of displacement and the things we find in displacement’s wake, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Reserve Deep Singh Blue or Good Indian Girls here.

-Kelly

*Here’s his answer, by the way: “At university, I studied with the avant-garde French novelist Monique Wittig, who placed enormous significance on working at the sentence level. She taught me a great deal, though usually very quietly. She would look at a whole page, then very softly bring the point of her finger down on a single word, and say, that in her opinion, this one word needed to be “suppressed.” She would, invariably, pick the one word that would have ramifications throughout the text, and it would be a lesson I could apply to the rest of my work. Those tiny “suppressions” of hers were incredibly important for me—they were like small bombs that went off in my mind, which sent shudders throughout all my work—and they helped teach me how to write powerful and taut sentences.”

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