Dark Dreams Bought and Sold

bazaarofbaddreamsI’m not overly fond of short stories any more (which is weird because all I ever do is write short stories that usually end up as long as a three-hour Uncle Morty War Story in which Morty gets his World Wars mixed up and tells you he shot the Archduke Ferdinand) but when Stephen King comes out with a new book of short stories, I eat them up. His newest collection is titled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

Throughout most of his writing life, King has set his novels and stories in Maine. Over the last few years he’s begun setting them in places like Florida. Reading them kind of feels like mom and dad sold your childhood home and moved away while you were at college. The stories are still good but they don’t feel like…home.

Many dismiss King as a horror hack churning out stories about monsters under the bed or clowns terrorizing children but they have it all wrong. Sure, in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams he writes about monsters like in the story “Mile 81” where a car (with hints of his novel Christine thrown in) eats people at a rest stop. King also writes about weird happenings like in the story “UR” where a man decides to bite the bullet and buy a Kindle. This was when Kindles first came out and there were a couple features on them that were ‘experimental.’ He finds out just what that means when he orders nonfiction books about historical events that never happened-in this version of the universe.

But King also writes about everyday life as shown in these stories from his latest collection:

“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation”: after a man lunches with his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, they get into a road rage incident that has unforeseen consequences.

“Morality”: What does a financially strapped married couple do to get out from under the weight of debt and job loss? The unthinkable becomes possible.

“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive”: A couple of octogenarian poets rekindle an old love during a picnic while a van full of kids and two down on their luck women barrel down a freeway.

“Premium Harmony”: The love is gone from this married couple and the wife’s damn dog is still in the back seat.

kingDo you want some straight up old school King terror? Try these shorties in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams:

“Bad Little Kid”: Dennis the Menace has nothing on this supernatural punk, but can anybody else see him?

“Afterlife”: A man is dying from cancer. Is it the end or just another beginning?

“The Little Green God of Agony”: In 1999 Stephen King was run over by a van while out for his daily walk. He should have died. Instead, this story (along with many novels and stories) came out about a man who claims he can take physical pain from people and make it his own.

I sat up way late into the night reading this book. See, that’s the beauty of a Stephen King short story: you read the first few pages and think ‘Where the hell is he going to go with this?’ The answer is ‘I don’t know, man.  I just don’t know.’ He’s a wildcard. Wildcard!

We Never Asked for Wings

weneveraskedforwingsThe novel We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh gives a voice to the desperate and marginalized, depicting faulty characters some of whom are innocent victims of circumstance.

In the afterward, author Vanessa Diffenbaugh confides that this was a hard story to write following the success of her 1st novel The Language of Flowers. I found it a hard book to read. I began by listening to the audiobook version but switched over to the book near the last few chapters. The two main characters are flawed and at times the story simply didn’t seem plausible; I had to keep reminding myself what I knew of their situation to help make sense of their actions.

Diffenbaugh is a wife and mother of four and is also an advocate for foster children. She sits on the board of Youth Villages, a non-profit that seeks to improve outcomes for America’s most vulnerable children and families.

After reading this I realized I may have been too quick to judge. Diffenbaugh is not typing away in a cozy cabin, she is a busy mom involved in her community. My perception of her was altered to one of respect.

We Never Asked for Wings is a contemporary story set in the Bay area. Letty is a single mother of Hispanic descent born in the United States. She is co-dependent on her parents, illegals who have raised her two children while she works as a bartender to support the family. When Letty discovers a note from her mother stating she has left to join her husband who returned to his native Mexico 6 weeks earlier, Letty adds her name to the note, abandoning her 15-year-old son Alex and 6-year-old daughter Luna.

Catching up with her mother at a bus station, Letty lies to her mother about her children’s safety and the two continue across the border to her parent’s home. Eventually Letty’s mother discovers the truth and sends Letty back to San Francisco to take responsibility for her two children.

Alex is smart, responsible, and reliable, but he is still a kid. When he finds out his mother has left he is angry, but he does not neglect to care for his younger sister while his mother is gone. Yesenia is an illegal immigrant and a classmate of Alex. The two develop a friendship which leads to first love. When Alex moves to a better school in a better neighborhood, he is unable to protect Yesenia from school bullies. In an attempt to rescue her, Alex takes advantage of a good teacher’s trust by breaking into the school database and enrolling Yesenia into Mission Hills School. Alex not only compromises his education, but creates a much greater problem for Yesenia.

Letty works hard to become a parent to her two children, but at age 32 she manages to make some pretty stupid mistakes. She insists on keeping the identity of her son’s father from him, but Alex’s persistence and curiosity win out.

The story is set in a nearby marsh at the end of the San Francisco Airport runway where there are colonies of migrating birds. The setting is both beautiful and disturbing, juxtaposing the frailty of the birds against the jumbo jets. Both are free to take flight, unlike the human lives portrayed in Diffenbaugh’s story.

While this was not one of my most favorite reads of 2015, I’m glad I stuck with it because it has given me a measure of insight into the lives of people who have fled their own country in hopes of a better life, only to face more hardship. I realize each life is unique and that there are all sorts of variables, but in this particular story I found myself empathizing with Yesenia and her mother who had fled Mexico because of severe abuse and the need for medical help.

Heartwood 6:1 – With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst

With My Dog EyesThis impressive, very brief book – the story is only 59 pages long – crosses a lot of terrain and mixes in mathematics, poetry, existentialism and madness. It won’t be for everyone, but readers of Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Beckett, and Joyce should all find things here to like.

The story centers on Amós Kéres and his sudden mental deterioration. Kéres is a math professor who is married and has a son, but his work and family life are inexplicably becoming matters of indifference to him. Something happened to him one day when he climbed a small hill and had an experience he describes as “a clear-cut unhoped-for” and a vision of “incommensurable meaning.”

The book mostly delves into the thoughts of Kéres in an off-kilter, stream-of-consciousness fashion, but it also explores his interactions with a few other characters, concluding in a dark, enigmatic ending. The narrative voice twitches unexpectedly between first person and third person as Kéres expresses his thoughts and describes his actions – this creates an unsettling, out-of-body effect, as if Kéres is living his thoughts while also observing himself from across the room.

As with the swirling narrative, it’s a bit of a challenge to figure out exactly when the story is taking place: As a sequence of flashbacks in his classroom where he’s suddenly fallen silent and wears a thousand-yard stare? In the home of his mother where he’s written the line that appears on the first and last page of the book (“God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter”)? In a through-the-looking-glass nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions?

This is a strange and disquieting little book – I encourage adventurous readers to give it a try.

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Hilda Hilst was an important 20th Century Brazilian writer whose work has only recently begun to be translated into English.

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I Already Forgot to Remember

thegreatforgettingThis is how James Renner’s The Great Forgetting opens: a Scoutmaster finds an ape-like arm, with a watch still attached to the wrist, at the memorial site of the crash of Flight 93, a plane hijacked on 9/11 but diverted from its intended course when the passengers overtook the terrorists onboard and crashed the plane into a Pennsylvania field. The Scoutmaster takes it to the coroner who was at the crash site all those years ago.

The coroner studies the arm and tells the man someone must be playing a prank on him. If it was an arm from the crash (and he very much doubts it is) it’d be nothing but bone. Many remains from that crash were vaporized on impact. The watch is engraved with a name that sounds familiar to the coroner. He checks the names of those aboard Flight 93 and the name on the watch matches the name of a man who died when the plane crashed.

But why does it look so ape-like?

Jack Felter, a history teacher, is headed home for the summer to help his sister take care of their ailing father, a former pilot in the Vietnam War who has a violent form of dementia. Jack’s childhood best friend Tony has been missing for two years. A psychologist working at a mental hospital, Tony was accused of funneling money from the hospital and disappeared. Tony’s wife, Sam, was Jack’s first love. She believes that Tony committed suicide and is now at the bottom of a quarry and wants Jack’s help finding the body. This is where the plot really takes a turn for the bizarre.

It seems Tony was acting strange even before he left, becoming more and more paranoid, boiling all of his drinking water and delving into conspiracy theories. He’d been an intense kid, but Jack hasn’t seen him in years. Jack reluctantly agrees to help Sam out, figuring he’ll ask around and get her questions answered, then return to his life in another town.

Jack heads to the mental hospital where he meets 16-year-old Cole who was Tony’s patient. Tony told Cole that one day his friend Jack would come for a visit. Cole begins telling him a story: There’s a group of people who have come up with a program called The Great Forgetting. They want us to forget important things like world events. They keep resetting time. They put fluoride in the water to make us forget. Start boiling your water.

“What day do you think it is?” Cole asks Jack.

Jack looks at him with that condescending indulgent smile sane people give to those they deem bat poop crazy and answers “It’s Tuesday, June16th.”

Cole says “It’s Wednesday, the 17th”. Boil your water, he tells Jack.  Begin to remember.

Cole is the only one who knows where Tony has disappeared to and thinks that finding him might save the world. Unfortunately, some very nasty things are not only after Jack and Cole but want to hunt down Tony as well. Jack and a motley group head for a secret bunker under the Catskills which leads them to a forgotten island in the Pacific and eventually the truth about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared without a trace a year ago.

The Great Forgetting is a fantastic book about time travel, enduring love, and setting things right. If you crave paranoid conspiracy theories with a little sci-fi thrown in, this book is the one!

I gotta boogie on out of here. I have 8 gallons of water to boil. I want to remember.

Make It a Book Christmas!

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One of our family traditions when I was growing up was to give and receive books for Christmas. Christmas Eve meant opening that one gift of a book and reading it in new pajamas. I still have my cherished copies of Charlotte’s Web, Island of the Blue Dolphins and Stuart Little that I received as gifts. Giving books is an easy way to show the children in your life how much you value reading and books. Yet, you’ll want to find the perfect book of excellent quality for each child.

What makes a good gift book? I would say that it is a book that a child will love and read over and over again. So, of course, it depends upon the child, but here is a list of wildly popular titles that are so well loved that they are hard to keep on the library shelves.

If you have an elementary school aged person on your gift list, consider giving one of the many wonderful chapter books that have stood the test of time. I can recommend Charlotte’s Web, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Little House on the Prairie, Stuart Little, and Anne of Green Gables. You can’t go wrong with these excellent classic chapter books.

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Newbery Award books like the ones I received as a child are a super idea but there are others I’d like to point out to you as wonderful gift ideas. If you have a very young child on your shopping list, consider a pop-up book. These delicate books cannot be checked out from the library, so it’s nice to own your very own copy.

indexThe Very Hungry Caterpillar Pop-Up Book is a fabulous choice as a gift. This classic tale comes to life as the familiar caterpillar literally pops off the pages of the book–crawling along branches, munching through food, and in one of the most memorable climaxes ever, emerging vibrantly as a three-dimensional beautiful butterfly.

I checked out the book display at our local warehouse store and found some excellent titles at (of course) great prices. They have sets of Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter, and Nancy Drew books. You can also find the newest Dork Diary and Wimpy Kid books.

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index (11)Non-fiction books are another excellent idea. I’d say that THE most popular book in the children’s department is the Guinness World Records and it’s already out for 2016! How did they do that? The world’s best-selling annual is back and bursting with thousands of amazing new records, never-before-seen images and mind-boggling trivia. It’s a fabulous ‘look-at’ book which could fill many hours or reading pleasure.

index (12)How about Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes by Rick Riordan? This is an illustrated book that tells of all the daring deeds of Perseus, Orpheus and the rest of the Greek heroes. It is told in the funny, irreverent style readers have come to expect from Percy and is enhanced with vibrant illustrations. This is a great introduction to Greek heroes that will appeal to every modern reader. Give a Greek history lesson as a gift!

indexHere’s another great idea: Give the hugely popular NEW illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling. This is the beloved first book of the Harry Potter series, now lavishly illustrated by award-winning artist Jim Kay making this deluxe format a perfect gift as much for the child being introduced to the series as for the dedicated fan. You could make this gift your new holiday tradition.

index (5)index (6)You could also give books that enrich the things you do together with your child. Minecraft books are super popular and there’s a boxed series at that store (again) which would appeal to many. Or, give Let’s Knit! which is a DK book with fabulous photos and knitting instruction for the young child.

And finally, it’s a wonderful idea to build your own holiday book collection to share each year. Of course, there’s The Night Before Christmas, and the Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, but please consider Santa Calls by William Joyce. This beautifully illustrated Christmas story is my favorite!  An exciting adventure to the North Pole to help out Santa turns into a poignant (but not saccharine) message about the importance of family. The pictures have a sort of 1940’s ‘Vision of the Future!’ feel, if that makes sense, and the final pages feature two letters that you can open and read to discover the secret behind why Santa called.

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Give the gift of books this holiday season and you’ll also be fostering a love of reading in that young person’s life. Happy Holidays!

Sarah’s Selections

sarahlanguageartsInterested in a great novel or inspiration for finally building your home away from home? If so, check out Sarah’s latest reading adventures. For more of Sarah’s reviews, and lots of other great stuff, head over to our Facebook page.

Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos

Charles teaches English at a prestigious, private, Seattle school. His wife and he have divorced, after difficulties raising their autistic son, Cody. They are in the process of converting an older home into a private group home for Cody and some of his fellow classmates. Charles devotes much of his spare time writing letters to his younger daughter, Emmy, who’s away at college, and reminiscing about his own childhood. In Charles’ youth, he befriended a boy, Dana McGucken, who’s mysterious behavior was unnamed at the time, but now would be recognized on the autistic spectrum. Charles remembers how unhappy his parents were in their marriage, and recounts his relationship with his 4th grade Language Arts teacher, a woman who emphasized the Palmer method of penmanship. Charles makes revelations between his relationship with Dana, and the strained relationship he now has with his son. Charles’s life is focused on language and prose, and yet he can’t communicate with his son. A dramatic plot twist at the end cements the story, and unites the characters together. Kallos doesn’t publish very often, but I’m always happy when she does. She’s a talented storyteller, and her conviction for her characters is strong.

cabinpornCabin Porn: Inspiration for Your Quiet Place Somewhere
by Zachery Klein

Cabin Porn began as an online collection of photos to inspire a group of friends embarking on homebuilding. Readers around the world submitted shots of various structures to get ideas and brainstorm. The snapshots are mainly of exteriors, and many are tucked away in nature’s nooks and crannies. Some of the more oddball structures include a renovated grain silo, and an underground bunker built into a hillside. Rustic charm is illustrated throughout, and if you’re looking for inspiration for solitude this is it. It’s time to start saving up the cabin fund.

rocktheshackRock the Shack: Architecture of Cabins, Cocoons and Hide-outs: The Architecture of Cabins, Cocoons and Hide-Outs
by Sven Ehmann

Tired of city living? Are your neighbors driving you crazy? This collection of architectural gems will inspire you to get away from it all. Structures range from simple huts and teahouses to glamorous cabins with modern lines. Many of the submissions are from Europe and Japan, and the architectural designs will inspire you to downsize and escape. These quirky and unique dwellings showcase the human desire to create a sense of home.

Heartwood 5:5 – Leavetaking by Peter Weiss

LeavetakingLeavetaking is a compelling autobiographical novella by German-born Peter Weiss set in the decades building up to World War II.

Years have passed since the end of the war, and now that the narrator’s parents have both recently died, the adult children gather at their old house to settle the estate. The narrative unspools as an unbroken thread of the narrator’s reflections upon his early life, triggered by the return to the home of his upbringing. And I do mean both unspooling and unbroken – the novella takes the form of a single long paragraph, recounting events from the narrator’s boyhood and moving beautifully – steadily but unhurriedly – through his adolescence. The long-paragraph form takes a little getting used to, but the pacing overall achieves an intoxicating, immersive flow.

Weiss’s story includes a number of common experiences of childhood – the bullying frenemy, the intimidation of going to school for the first time, rebellion against parental rule, and the riches of childhood play and imagination. The second half of the book includes some frank scenes of his burgeoning libido, including some incestuous foreplay with his sister Margit. There are times when the storytelling gets very compressed, such as the surprising announcement of his sister’s death.

The narrator is captivated by literature, music and art, and he resists the idea of following his father in the textile trade or any other conventional avenue of work. As a young man he spends his time painting and wants to be an artist, getting help and advice eventually from Harry Haller, a character based on Weiss’s real-life mentor, Herman Hesse. His parents resist his artistic inclinations and his mother violates the trust he places in her as guardian of his paintings.

Readers might be surprised at how unconcerned with politics the young narrator is, at a time when Hitler’s regime has caused his family to move a number of times. The book ends with the narrator awakening in a way from his own self-involvement and indicates a turn toward others and toward the problems of the world. This is a fine short novel, well worth the small investment in time it takes to read.

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