Tag Archives: Kelly

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?

whiskeyetc

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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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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Double Stuff

Print

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

oreoI love novels that break all the rules, and that become something even more awesome than they would have been if they’d just quietly followed the conventions of the modern novel (which, of course, was developed mostly by white men). Fran Ross’s 1974 classic Oreo definitely falls into this category.

It follows the journey of Christine Clark—a half Jewish, half black teenager nicknamed Oreo—as she tries to “discover the secret of her birth,” i.e. track down her father using a very obtuse set of clues (“sow” is one, as well as “the sword and the slippers,” which turns out to be a mezuzah necklace and a pair of socks). This, as you may have guessed from the clues, is not a serious novel. Ross uses hyperbole, crazy metaphors, improbable circumstances, and actions bordering on the fantastic to create what has rightly been called a “hilarious” novel by Paul Beatty, whose novel White Boy Shuffle is one of our Black History Month book list picks.

Terrance Hayes, a pretty famous local black poet who picked both White Boy Shuffle and Oreo for us, had this to say about the two novels:

The book that comes to mind as a provocative Black History Month work is, White Boy Shuffle, the 1996 debut novel of Paul Beatty. I read it in one fevered sitting twenty years ago. The protagonist, Gunnar Kaufmann, is an irreverent, poetry writing, basketball playing, black kid. In the novel Beatty satirizes Race, America, education, Blacks and Black history with a radical mix of ridicule and ridiculousness. It’s very much in conversation with Fran Ross’s 1974 novel, Oreo, another bildungsromanic book about a smart and smart aleck young black protagonist—a half black half Jewish teen girl. Ross was one of Richard Pryor’s comedy writers so you can imagine the book’s hilarity. In fact, Beatty and Ross take cues from Pryor’s style: scathing, self critical, unapologetically funny and smart. Both books celebrate creative freedom; both celebrate Black History by freely satirizing Black History.

The novel doesn’t start with Oreo’s journey, however. It starts way back with her family history, and slowly works up to Oreo, who is sort of like an every-day superhero. Ross doesn’t rely only on straight prose or text to give the reader a glimpse into the minds of her characters. She uses equations, menus, dialogues, logos, and other textual and non-textual ephemera.

The effect, in whole, is to create a novel that destroys (and in doing so comments on) traditional novel structures and rebuilds them in a new way. Considering the time period in which the book was written, this makes sense. From the afterword:

Under the banner of the Black Arts movement that emerged as the cultural component of Black Power politics of the 1960s and 1970s, African American writers and artists struggled to define and practice a distinctive black aesthetic that departed from traditions based in the history and values of European cultures. The Black Arts movement was fueled by the desire to use art to recover—or, if necessary, to create or reinvent—an authentic black culture based in the particular historical experience of Americans of African descent.

Oreo isn’t just based in black culture or the Black Arts movement, though. It’s also firmly rooted in Jewish culture and tradition. Although Oreo’s parents got divorced when she was too young to remember anything about her Jewish father, her mother adapted some Yiddish into her everyday speech. And then there’s her grandfather, who made it his life’s mission to get rich from creating products meant to trick Jews. (I assure you, though, this is handled in a hilarious way, not an offensive way. The grandfather is portrayed as being ridiculous and maybe a little crazy.) If you don’t know a lot of Yiddish, some of the book’s subtler points might be lost, but not knowing doesn’t detract from the book’s enjoyment.

Although I didn’t really get into this book until Oreo has embarked on her journey to find her father and gets tangled up in all sorts of adventures, the beginning is still, objectively speaking, hilarious.

If you’d like to give Oreo a try, reserve a copy and join us on Thursday, February 18 from 1 to 2 p.m. in the Large Print Room at CLP – Main for a lively discussion.

-Kelly

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Stay Out of Trouble? Never!

When someone tells me to stay out of trouble, I invariably respond with, “Never.”

Well-behaved women seldom make history, after all.

getintroubleAnd that is one of the many reasons why I love Kelly Link’s newest short story collection, Get in Trouble.

These nine stories are fantastically dark and brooding, but not so dark as to leave you utterly depressed at their end. They touch on death, suicide, betrayal, secrets kept and secrets revealed, creepy trends, the afterlife, and more.

My favorite story from the collections is the first one, “The Summer People” (which you can read online at The Wallstreet Journal for free!). It begins as one thing and transforms into another, and I love the way Link leads the reader from grounded reality to an otherworldly fantastical place.

Some short story collections feel scattered or uneven, but this one never misses a step. Once you’re thrown off balance by the unreality and harshness of that first story, Link keeps you unsettled through the rest of the collection, hardly giving you room to breathe. Her prose is fantastical but solid–you know there’s more bubbling under the surface, even if you can only glimpse it.

The characters are all complex, flawed, and relatable. They don’t always behave well (you can guess that from the title), but you can’t help but relate to them anyway (And who behaves well all the time, anyway?).

One of the subtler themes in this book is that of longing and belonging. Many of the characters want something that they cannot have, or can only have at someone else’s expense. Some of them appear to belong to a group, but feel isolated and alone. Watching them all work through their problems, sometimes to a tragic conclusion, is riveting and heartbreaking.

For the audiobook, each story has a different narrator; a common practice for audiobooks of short story collections. Generally, there’s at least one narrator I can’t stand (it was hard for me to get through Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes because one of the narrators irritated me so much, and of course that one read multiple stories), but there wasn’t a bad one in this bunch.

Like the stories, the narrators feel as if they go together. There’s no discord or disharmony in their reading–each one fits the story he or she reads, and they sound good next to each other.

If you like authors like Karen Russell, Haruki Murakami, Jorge Luis Borges, and/or Aimee Bender, give Kelly Link a try.

Request Get in Trouble in print, as an eBook, as an audiobook, or as an eAudiobook.

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Ready, Set, Write!

Ah, November. The time for shorter days, hot beverages, curling up on the couch with a good book, spending time with loved ones and finally writing that novel you’ve got banging around in your head.

In case you are not one of the hundreds of thousands of writers who gather (digitally and in person) each November for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, let me explain. From November 1 to 30, the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel (that’s 1,667 words per day).

Sound hard?

Well, that’s probably because it is. I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo since 2007 and have only met the word count goal three times—but even the “failures” aren’t really failures. I always end the month with more written than I had at the beginning, and even if my novel fizzles out, I can use what I learned for my next draft.

Also, it’s fun.

Think you can’t start because it’s already November 3? Think again! As of this writing, I haven’t written a single word toward my NaNo novel. That’s okay, though, because I still have 27 entire days to pound out those 50,000 words. I’ve written as many as 10,000 words in a single day, and there are people who do the whole 50,000 in a single day or weekend.

Even if you’re only a hobbyist, or want to write a fanfic novel for fellow diehards and don’t care about traditional publishing, the Library can help you train with one of our handy books on writing.

No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty
noplotBaty is NaNoWriMo’s founder and ultimate guru. The original No Plot? No Problem came out in 2004 when NaNo was just starting to take off. An updated version came out in 2014 (the Library has the print as well as the eBook version). This guide psyches you up for your Herculean writing effort, and it provides tips and tricks for such dangerous acts as writing at work. It takes you through the stages you’ll go through with your novel (sort of like grief), and acts as a general novel-writing cheerleader. A must-read for NaNo newbies.

Book in a Month by Victoria Schmidt
bookinamonthI haven’t read this personally, but it has good reviews on Goodreads. Unlike Baty’s book, this one breaks down the novel-writing process into a structured timeline with specific milestones meant to be reached on certain days. And, since you aren’t limited to November with this system, you can pick any month that works for you.

Is Life Like This? by John Dufresne
lifelikethisIf writing 50,000 words in 30 days seems like something a crazy person would do, how about writing a novel in six months? Like Book in a Month, this title gives you a goal to work toward and milestones to hit along the way. Great for those who prefer distance running to sprints. Or for those who don’t want to cut themselves off from all social activity for thirty days.

Kicking in the Wall by Barbara Abercrombie
kickinginthewallAbercrombie’s book gives you prompts and exercises to practice your writing craft throughout the whole year, not just during November. Or cherry-pick for ideas that speak to you and your current project. The book also includes inspirational and encouraging quotes to keep you motivated.

The Daily Writer by Fred D. White
dailywriterThis book is essentially a writer’s devotional. Instead of providing religious texts or messages, though, the author provides meditations meant to deepen and enrich your creative side and grow your writing practice over the course of a full year (with an extra day for leap year).

Happy novel writing!

-Kelly, who is seriously behind on her word count

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We Don’t Need Roads

The future is today.

Or, at least it was in a fictional 1985, when Marty McFly traveled forward in time to October 21, 2015.

It also happens to be the real-world 30th anniversary of the original Back to the Future film.

Grab your hover board, light-up auto-lacing Nikes, Pepsi Perfect and—of course—your flux capacitors, and help us celebrate this momentous occasion by sharing your favorite BTTF memories, moments and ephemera!



I recently exposed myself to the hilarious madness that is Rick and Morty and noticed that the title characters bare more than a passing resemblance to Doc Brown and Marty McFly.

doc-and-marty

© Universal Studios

Rick&Morty

© Time Warner

My suspicions were confirmed after I found an extremely not safe for work Back to the Future parody from Justin Roiland, co-creator of Rick and Morty. It even featured samples of Alan Silvestri‘s iconic score. Hearing that triumphant theme (that’s been comfortably stuck in my head for weeks now) was enough to make me want to rewatch the entire trilogy, which I consider to be one ginormous near-six hour movie. Obviously, they’re still great, but there were a lot of questions I had now that the wide-eyed younger version of me didn’t/couldn’t even think about before. For instance, if I were George McFly, there’s no way I’d employ the high school bully to wash and wax my vehicles. Especially when that bully was moments away from sexually assaulting my future wife in the high school parking lot the night of the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. Space-time continuum be damned, that’s just messed up.

biff

The classic “I-used-to-be-a-high-school-bully-but-now-I-act-like-neutered-ne’er-do-well” pose. Also, tracksuit.
© Universal Studios

-Ross



The Back to the Future movies hinge on the idea that what you change in the past can have big, sometimes unexpected, consequences in your own present and future. So when I started thinking about what I would do if I could travel back in time, I quickly decided I wouldn’t do anything. As we also see in Ray Bradbury’s famous story, “A Sound of Thunder,” the tiniest change can have far-reaching effects. I don’t want to knock over a lamp in 1899 and come back to find out Andrew Carnegie never established any public libraries. There’s a scary thought.

I wouldn’t change anything in my own past either. Sure, I wish I hadn’t been caught skipping gym that time in high school, but our pasts makes us who we are.

Maybe I would travel to the future, though. It would be pretty cool if my Honda could fly. Of course, according to Back to the Future II, that technology should be available now. I like the idea that in some alternate version of 2015, people are powering their (flying) cars with mini fusion reactors using only household trash. That other 2015 has a lot more Jaws sequels than we do, too, but I don’t feel like I missed out on that one. Still, it’s cool to imagine that in that alternate timeline, right now, Marty is out there experiencing a future we only dreamed of.

-Megan



If Marty goes back in time and changes the future, shouldn’t he by the nature of time travel change his own memories? Why does he retain the memory of what happened, but for everyone else, the new reality is the only reality they’ve ever been aware of?

If I think about this too long, my head spins. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter, because Back to the Future is so much fun. Doc is lovable because he’s the archetypal mad scientist. Marty is lovable because he’s the semi-clueless teenager we can all relate to (unless you haven’t hit the magical year of 13 yet, in which case, get ready for some crazy stuff). Together, they are an adorable, delightful—and most importantly—flawed team.

Even though Marty sort of bumbles his way through the trilogy, engaging in plenty of whacky antics and skateboard/hover board stunts, these are movies about second chances. About new beginnings and better futures.

And no matter how much time travel can make my head spin, I will always love Back to the Future for reminding me about the power of the choices we make and the second chances life gives us.

-Kelly


In case this post didn’t have enough BTTF goodness for you, check out the marathons happening at the Rowhouse Cinema in Lawrenceville, or snap up this box set that contains remastered music from all three movies on vinyl.

And, of course, you can always check out these BTTF-related goodies from your favorite library:

If you could travel to the future or the past, where would you go, and what would you change (if anything)?

-Team Eleventh Stack

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Just in Time for Banned Books Week

Earlier this month, a mother from Tennessee called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot “pornographic”–because of the description of Henrietta discovering a cervical tumor–and demanded it be removed from the school’s reading list.

hela

Rebecca Skloot responded in the best way.

First, she called the mother out for “confusing gynecology with pornography,” and second, and even better, she’s raising funds to donate copies of her book to kids who can’t afford it.*

The book traces the life of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the 1950s. When Henrietta died, she left behind six children–and cells from a sample her doctor had taken from one of her tumors.

No one in Henrietta’s family knew the doctors had taken the sample. The cells, now known as HeLa cells, became the first cells that survived in a laboratory setting and led to many scientific advances, including the polio vaccine.

Now scientific and pharmaceutical companies sell HeLa cells to labs across the country, but Henrietta’s family has never seen any of the profit. Skloot has attempted to offset this injustice by using proceeds from her book to create The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which you can read more about here.

In her compassionate and beautiful telling of Henrietta’s story, Skloot raises issues of medical ethics, race, poverty, and more as she investigates Henrietta’s life, death, and the legacy she left behind. Getting young adults to read this book is an incredible way to promote scientific literacy and engage broader issues of medical ethics and our country’s long history of viewing people of color as “less than.”

If you haven’t read this book, now is the perfect time. Banned Books Week is happening right now, and Henrietta Lacks is available to you in print, large print, e-book, e-audio, and CD.

-Kelly

 

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