21. ‘The Mother Garden’ by Robin Romm

I discovered The Mother Garden by Robin Romm at a used bookstore when I was visiting family in Florida last year. The stories on the back sounded so intriguing: a woman plants a garden of mothers to replace the one she lost, a man uses an egg to see if he is ready for fatherhood, and a daughter finds her long-lost father in the middle of the desert. How could I resist? While most of the stories were grounded in reality, there was definitely a touch a magical realism running through some of them. In the end, I wasn’t pleased with all of the stories in this collection, but I did find it to be an overall good read.

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While I’ve read loads of short story collections over the years, The Mother Garden was the first one where all of the stories revolved around the same theme: the impact of losing a parent. Both of my parents passed away some time ago, and I found that these stories reminded me of the impact that loss has on our lives. I was drawn into the first story with its opening line, “My mother’s going to die.” The mom in question is slowly dying of cancer, and Romm fills the story with haunting details such as the wheeze of the oxygen tank and the painful disintegration of the body. Once we see how mom’s illness impacts the daughter and her father, Romm throws a twist into the story in having a strange woman wash up on the beach. The young lady’s sudden appearance is left unexplained, and her influence on the mother is what drives the rest of this story.

Romm infuses all of these stories with a touch of the bizarre that often borders on magical realism. One of my favorite stories in the collection, “Lost and Found,”is about a woman who discovers a naked man passed out in the middle of the desert. There’s a note attached to the man’s foot saying This is your father. Do as you will. The narrator brings her “father” home who has never been in her life. Another favorite story, “The Beads,” is about the jewelry a woman makes from the mysterious beads found in her dead mother’s stomach. “Family Epic” explores the drama that only our loved ones can bring, but with a twist: most of the family are dead and appear to the narrator as ghosts.

You will soon discover that these stories are less about death and more about the impact that the characters face because of it. Romantic relationships with others are affected significantly from unexplored grief. Another theme is parenthood, such as the need to not make the same mistakes as our parents made. Romm also explores our fascination with death. In “Celia’s Fish,” a man who is having an affair with his dying wife’s best friend worries that she’s too attentive of a nursemaid:

“It’s more excruciating and exhilarating than any carnival ride or horror film. It’s happening right in front of them, what they all fear most.”

The inclusion of strange elements keep these stories fresh. Romm writes in a very straightforward and simplistic style that makes the bizarre quite believable. Even in the title story about planting a garden of mothers, it all feels very realistic. Romm insists in the interview that concludes the book that there is no magic here. I would argue against this statement as the magic that runs throughout these tales are the every day type of magic that exists all around us.

Although I enjoyed this collection, it had some problems. Romm often ended her stories abruptly at climatic moments. While this worked sometimes, I found that it didn’t necessarily work for every story. I actually think some of these stories, such as “The Arrival,” could have used some further expansion.

I think The Mother Garden is a confident debut from a writer who can clearly write well. However, she is a debut writer so some of the stories definitely are more polished and complete than others. I am impressed, however, that Romm created a thought-provoking collection of “slice-of-death” stories that remind us of the complexities of the parent-child relationship even in death.

“Some people go chasing these phantoms all of their lives. Each day begins with a shadow of loss that hangs with the curtains, each evening comes to a close with a list of ways things could have been.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below. 

 

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20. ‘I Capture the Castle’ by Dodie Smith

Have you ever been confused by how you felt about a book as you were reading it? Maybe you were attracted to certain qualities, while others left you feeling confused. I suppose you could say our relationships with books are quite like how they are with people. This is a novel that is considered a modern day classic by many, so I was intrigued to finally get around to checking it out for myself. Originally published in 1948, I Capture the Castle was the first novel from Dodie Smith who would go on to write the beloved children’s classic The One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Overall, I found this novel to be quite an enchanting period piece while still holding some extremely relevant themes.

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Can you really go wrong by an endorsement from J.K. Rowling?

This is the story of the Mortmain family who live in an old dilapidated castle off of the British coast. Our narrator is seventeen-year-old Cassandra, and the novel is told in the form of her diary. My copy of the book has an endorsement from J.K. Rowling stating “This book has one of the most charismatic narrators I’ve ever met.” I’m not sure if I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, as I found Cassandra likable at times while annoying at others. The other members of the Mortmain family are an interesting group. Cassandra’s father once wrote a famous book and hasn’t written anything since. He now uses his time reading detective novels and being all-around irritable. The rest of the household consists of Cassandra’s bohemian stepmother, beautiful older sister Rose, and younger brother Thomas. Living in an old castle is not all that it’s cracked up to be as the family is practically living in poverty. All that is about to change with the arrival of a wealthy American family with two eligible bachelor brothers.

Obviously, this is a book that has been inspired by the works of Jane Austen. In fact, Cassandra and Rose reference Ms. Austen quite a lot. With the arrival of the two brothers, Rose sets her sights on the oldest one as he is the one with the money. Similar to reading a work like Pride and Prejudice, this is a book that moves at a slow pace and should be read a such. The joy in reading I Capture the Castle is to fully immerse yourself into the setting and the excellent writing. While much of this book owes a tribute to Jane Austen, this is a novel that is so much more than just a period romance.

I didn’t expect the book to make me laugh as much as it did. There are some great comedic moments, some subtle while others had me laughing out loud. I love the members of the Mortmain family, particularly the father who I pictured being played by Jim Broadbent. I’ve always been a huge fan of British dramas, particularly as this one is peppered with lots of humor. I thought Cassandra definitely grew as a person throughout the novel with her struggles between naivety and self-awareness.

There were times when the second half of the book slowed down for me. I would much rather continue to experience life inside the run-down castle than in the big city. However, I can see the purpose of structuring the book in such a way. This is a novel of contrasts, such as the exploration of class differences or between British customs with those of Americans. Also, I got a little tired of Cassandra constantly explaining her feelings. It just felt too repetitive at times.

Without spoiling too much for those that haven’t read this, I was uncertain about the ending at first. At the heart of this novel is a love story, or rather, two love stories. Smith intentionally leaves the ending ambiguous rather than taking the safe “happy ending” approach. Upon reflection, I think this was quite a brilliant move which is what ultimately separates I Capture the Castle from a retelling of an Austen novel. Love is a complicated business, and often we are left unsure about what we want. I think I’m creating the character of Cassandra, Smith captured the difficulties of growing up.

“There is only one page left to write on. I will fill it with words of only one syllable. I love. I have loved. I will love.”

This book counts towards two of my challenges for the year. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below. 

19. ‘James and the Giant Peach’ by Roald Dahl

My wife has a collection of almost every Roald Dahl book ever written. I don’t think there’s a living soul out there who has not been influenced one way or another by his extraordinary fiction. To read a Roald Dahl story is to be transported to a magical place where children rule the day and adults are discovered to be incredibly dim. Anything can happen in a Roald Dahl book. One of my fondest childhood memories was watching the beautiful film of Willy Wonka and his amazing chocolate factory. In fact, I still stop and watch it whenever it’s on TV (no disrespect to Depp but Wilder will always be my Wonka). Since I needed a work of children’s fiction for this year’s Back to the Classics challenge, I narrowed my choices down to either Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach. Ultimately, my wife made the final decision on this one so you can thank her for the review which stands before you. For our fourth anniversary, I gave her this lovely fiftieth anniversary edition of the book (the theme was fruit). Reading this book was an amazing experience that made me feel like a child again.

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The stunning 50th anniversary edition!

One of my first thoughts when I started reading was how this book might have influenced one J.K. Rowling (maybe you’ve heard of her). This is the story of James Henry Trotter who is forced to live with his cruel aunts following the tragic death of his parents. If you thought Harry Potter was treated badly by the Dursleys, wait until you read about poor James under the care of his new relatives. James is routinely beaten and is neglected severely. One of Dahl’s trademarks is a tendency to exaggerate the negative qualities of his adult characters, which works to great effect. The descriptions of Aunts Spiker and Sponge are fantastic, so writers of adult works could learn a lot from Dahl. Despite the dark material, the writing is both whimsical and fun. Dahl possessed a strong wit, and writing children’s books was obviously the perfect medium for him.

“There are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t even started wondering about yet.”

One day James meets a strange old man who gives him a bag of crocodile tongues that have been boiled with some other ingredients (Dahl was quite twisted). The man tells James to just add water and some hairs from his head. Once he drinks it, the boy will never be miserable again. Of course, things don’t go according to plan. James trips and spills the concoction which attaches itself to the old peach tree in his aunts’ yard. The boy’s life is never the same again as he goes on some fantastic adventures inside the giant peach with his new enlarged insect friends.

I love this group of characters. My favorite was Centipede, a self-proclaimed pest who wears dozens of shoes. The other insect characters are also a lot of fun. There’s Earthworm who is blind and when not annoyed by his friend Centipede is being constantly thrust into danger. Miss Spider is a sweet lady who tells some horror stories about her family that will make you never want to kill another of the eight-legged creatures. Old-Green Grasshopper is the wise one who can play some of the most beautiful music ever heard. There are several other insect characters who don’t get as much screen time which is a shame. I never tired of the fun banter between all of the characters. While adventuring with his new friends, James is placed in multiple predicaments where he had to save everyone. Another strength of Dahl is how he empowers his child characters to do extraordinary things while maintaining a child’s unique view of the world. I never tire of that sense of wonder.

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Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s illustrations truly bring this book to life!

In the end, I found myself holding a special kinship with young James. As a child, I was often lonely and struggled to make friends. The truth is books were my companions. If an opportunity to fly around in a gigantic peach with some talking insects presented itself, then I would have jumped at the chance. Dahl was more than just a writer. He understood the world can often be a frightening place and how we all need people in our lives who bring meaning. This is why his special brand of magic endures.

I’m really happy to have selected this as my children’s classic. Also, I couldn’t have picked a better edition in order to rekindle my relationship with Roald Dahl. In her introduction, writer Aimee Bender explores how sometimes serious readers are embarrassed to display children’s books with their favorite adult selections. Just remember that there is often more wisdom to be found in a book written for children than in some of the grownup books out there. Personally, I think time spent in childlike pursuits is time well spent. As long as we don’t lose sight of the magic, then maybe we can save ourselves from turning into dim-witted adults.

“Well, maybe it started that way. As a dream, but doesn’t everything. Those buildings. These lights. This whole city. Somebody had to dream about it first. And maybe that is what I did. I dreamed about coming here, but then I did it.”

 

This book counts towards two of my challenges for the year. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below. 

My Favorite Short Story Collections (and Cycles)

This month is all about celebrating those little treasures we knows as short stories. I thought this week would be a great opportunity to revisit some of my favorite short story collections from the past few years. These stories cover several genres, from the realistic to the fantastic. First, I thought it might be a good idea to explore the differences between a short story “collection” vs. “cycle.” Did you know they are different? Allow me to elaborate.

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Short Story Collections

A short story collection consists of several stories brought together into one book. Although there may be a common theme throughout the book, each story typically stands alone and is unrelated to any of the others. Collections are either written by the same author or several different ones. Organization can vary in regards to where certain stories are placed in the book. Sometimes it’s chronological, while other times it may be laid out by theme. Many times, the order of the stories is chosen in order to create a certain flow. For example, some publishers put the strongest works in the beginning, middle, and end with lesser known works placed in between. In many ways, a short story collection is like an album with many hit singles. You don’t have to read all of them in a book, you can always pick and choose your favorite ones.

Short Story Cycles

Unlike a collection, a short story cycle is meant to be read together as all the stories share aspects such as characters or set in the same world. This isn’t to say that the individual stories can’t be read separately. However, some things are just better together. As you can see, the differences between collections and cycles are subtle but they are definitely present.

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Joel’s Favorites

As promised, here are some of my favorite examples. Click on the title to read more about each one:

If you love science fiction with heavy doses of philosophy, this is the short story collection for you. It was difficult to choose one or two favorites as all the stories are stellar, but I will mention “Hell is the Absence of God” and “Story of Your Life.”

Saunders is a gifted writer who crafts fantastic stories that focus on the moral dilemmas of living in modern America. This collection is brilliant and will definitely ignite lots of feelings. Notable selections include “Victory Lap” and “Escape from Spiderhead.”

If you want to read high quality urban fantasy, look no further than Charles De Lint. His stories set in Newford are beautifully written and will leave you believing in magic again. This book serves as a great introduction and will leave you wanting more. I refuse to pick any favorites. Read all of it!

There are three types of writers: good, great, and Murakami. Nobody writes like him, as he has one of the most unique voices in fiction. This collection of tales features all manner of bizarre circumstances, from deadly curses to strange creatures. Both “The Second Bakery Attack” and “Sleep” are great, but you should really take time to read the incredibly short but poignant “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.” Seriously, it will only take five minutes, and it’s heartbreaking but real.

You can never go wrong with Bradbury as his stories never fail to move me. He was such an important part of my childhood, and his works are etched within my very soul (I’m so poetic). The October Country is a fun read and features my all-time favorite short story “Homecoming.”

I was familiar with Fowler from her phenomenal novel The Jane Austen Book Club. However, this little collection truly showcases Fowler’s storytelling range as many of the selections defy falling into one specific genre. The ease with which she merges the real with the fantastic has instantly propelled her up on my list of favorite authors. The title short story “What I Didn’t See” is the perfect title for the overarching theme of this book as it deals with those viewpoints and details that we might miss at first glance. If nothing else, read the opening story “The Pelican Bar” as it is excellent.

David Mitchell’s first book is quite good as a precursor to his superior Cloud Atlas. Each chapter focuses on one character in a different part of the world, which all connects together in a shocking conclusion. Writing in several different voices is a challenge for any author, but Mitchell makes it look so simple.

This was my first Atwood. The first three stories form a cycle centering around a decades-long love triangle. The remaining ones are stand-alone affairs. Both “Torching the Dusties” and “Stone Mattress” are fantastic. Atwood is a master at blending genres, with many of the stories having a fantasy or science fiction feel.

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What are some of your favorite short stories? Sound off with a comment below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18. ‘Tenth of December’ by George Saunders

I was determined to read more short fiction this month so I decided to take a chance on a book that has been sitting on my shelves for a while. Tenth of December by George Saunders has been universally praised as one of the best, and its author has been in the spotlight as the latest recipient of the Man Booker prize. However, I was a tad underwhelmed with his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. Would my second attempt at Saunders enhance my appreciation? Honestly, it truly did. I found myself enjoying most of the stories in Tenth of December. While I wouldn’t say any of the stories changed my life, I did appreciate the beauty of the writing and the ways Saunders managed to grab my attention.

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These stories are definitely highly accomplished with some rather inventive ideas, some of which have elements of sci-fi. Most are grounded in reality, and Saunders does not shy away from the more painful aspects of every day human existence.  From child abuse to sexual predators to suicide, nothing is off limits here. Despite the dark content, these stories are about being able to find the light. Saunders constructs these tales to help us see the good in humanity. Many of the stories feature characters who are presented with a critical choice that forces them to examine their own morality.

Take the first story in this collection called “Victory Lap” where a sheltered teenage boy witnesses the attempted abduction of the girl next door. Does he follow years of programming by his smothering parents and turn a blind eye, or does he attempt to save her? Moral dilemmas such as this are presented in the context of many different formats. Some of my other favorites in this book include “Escape from Spiderhead” where prisoners participate in experiments where they can fall in and out of love with someone via a flip of a switch. They can also be made to feel an extreme depression resulting in wanting to violently commit suicide. Despite being a work of science fiction, this story is actually about the lengths someone will go just to save someone from harm.

Parenting is another common theme that continues to appear. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a father desperately wants to give his teenage daughter a lavish birthday just like her upper class friends. Thanks to buying a lucky lottery scratcher, he is able to rent for her living people who are strung up as ornaments. This story of human exploitation takes a hard look at how far others are willing to go to keep up with the Joneses. There’s this constant tension between living a genuinely happy life and needing to put on an appearance for the sake of proving it to the outside world. The subject of class comes up a lot with characters often comparing themselves to those they feel are above them.

My favorite aspect of Saunders’s writing is how he immediately places you into the story with no background information. His stream-of-consciousness style gets you into the characters’ heads. By the time you get a handle on what is happening, you are already hooked into the story. Many of these stories feature children, and they are just as believable as his adult creations. As I mentioned before, the writing itself is fun and inventive. Take “My Chivalric Fiasco” where an employee at a Medieval theme park takes a drug that has him speak in the language of the period. A lot of humor can be found here, some of it dark and at other times laugh-out-loud funny.

The stories in this collection were strong enough for me to continue to read more from George Saunders. For new readers, I think these stories would make a great introduction to his style. Saunders’s central concern is with modern western life, which is not always perfect but does have great beauty underneath its darker aspects.

“Every step was a victory. He had to remember that.” -“Tenth of December”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below.