The Human Statue of Liberty

In July of 1918, more than 18,000 officers and soldiers posed as Lady Liberty on the parade grounds at Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa.  Many men fainted- they were dressed in woolen uniforms- as the temperature neared 105 degrees.  The photo was taken from the top of a specially constructed tower by a Chicago photography studio and was intended to help promote the sale of war bonds, but was never used.

Check out this website to see more patriotic photos taken during WWI.  They are amazing!!  The flag and the Liberty Bell are especially fascinating.

Happy 4th of July from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave!

Review and Giveaway: Springtime on Mars by Susan Woodring

When my kids were very small, I would find myself with little snippets of time, perhaps while waiting at the pediatrician’s office, or watching a toddler gymnastics class, or while the kids were napping.  I found I could read short stories in a single sitting, and there was something really satisfying about that, unlike a novel, where it might be days until my next opportunity to sit down with my book, and I would need to go back and reread to figure out where I was. 

Springtime on Mars by Susan Woodring is a short story collection filled with intensely personal domestic situations of quiet desperation.   There are 11 stories, set in the 1950’s until the present day, loosely connected by recurrent themes of science and technology, marriage and relationships, love and loss.  

Charming, deceptively simple, and utterly American, many of these tales depict the country at the brink of change and huge scientific advances. Others show the struggle between faith in God and faith in science.  Ranging from the introduction of the television into our living rooms, to the Kennedy assassination, to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Springtime on Mars holds up a mirror and shows us not only who we were, but who we are. 

In Zenith, 1954, Reverend Joe and his wife Marianne, pregnant with twins, are given a welcoming gift by their congregation: 

I knew Frank did not hold to the elders’ decision to gift us with a television set, a worthless diversion that not only inspired rampant idleness, but also one that was relatively new- the whole thing could turn out to be nothing more than a Hollywood fad.” 

Woodring breathes life into her characters so quickly- within a few short paragraphs you fully grasp who they are.  In the story Inertia, Lizzie’s mother sends her to the basement for a jar of preserves and some beans.  She’s reluctant to go, and when she gets there, we understand why:  

“The shelves on the far wall held my grandmother’s canning efforts:  tomatoes, okra, peppers, and preserves: strawberry, pear, and rhubarb-strawberry.   There were empty spaces now, as there always were this late in summer, but since my grandmother had passed away last winter, the holes were unsettling.  My mother had promised to keep the garden up, but she’d tended only to her bees…” 

Later, Lizzie’s father attempts to explain her mother’s grief over her grandmother to Lizzie this way: 

“He assured me my mother’s need to tend to them {the bees} would pass, the same as people’s need to watch the skies for news from other worlds.  He taught math at the junior college and this seemed to give him an insight into why people believed what they believed.  It’s all, he said, an irrational desire to control the uncontrollable.  I wanted him to think I had a scientific mind like his, so I nodded and told him I understood, though I didn’t.” 

I was perhaps most touched and completely caught off guard by the story Beautiful, in which a father is staying in a hotel, apart from his family, on an extended business trip.  His wife and daughters come down for a visit, but there are huge walls of silence and misunderstanding.  He realizes his 13 year old didn’t want to make the trip; she seems embarrassed and unsure of how to act around her dad.  He then remembers how it used to be: 

“When she was little, though, she used to cup his face in her hands and draw it very close to her own.  Listen, she would say.  There’s a crisis on planet Gimbel and we have to go there now. “ 

Throughout that story, I was rooting for the dad so much.  I kept thinking,  Do something!  You’re going to lose your family!  The relief I felt when he finally took some action to connect with his kids is hard to describe.  I got so choked up and was surprised at how much it affected me. 

Susan Woodring has a unique voice and a disarming style.  Many short story collections are woefully uneven, but that is not the case here.   I found real moments of charm and humor in every single story.  I enjoyed this book so much and enthusiastically recommend it. 

The author has generously agreed to provide a copy of Springtime on Mars to one lucky commenter.  Please leave a comment here and a winner will be selected on June 6th, the date of Susan Woodring’s Books on the Brain stop on her blog tour.  On that date I will post a beautiful essay Susan has written on why a short story collection is a great choice for a book club. 

Susan Woodring’s website can be found HERE 

Here are excellent discussion questions for Springtime on Mars: 

Book Club Discussion Questions compiled by Ashley Roberts, March 2008.

1.   Though you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, what were your expectations before reading the book? Did the stories meet these expectations or were you surprised?

2.   Susan Woodring plays with family dynamics. What do these different types of families have in common? How are they different?  

3.  Why do you think “Springtime on Mars” is the book’s namesake? Does this story accurately represent the rest of the stories? 

4.  In “Birds of Illinois,” what do the birds symbolize? The meat? 

5.  Six of the eleven stories are written in the first person. Do you think these stories would be diminished in any way if we didn’t have the thoughts of the leading characters?  

6.  Woodring plays with different fears in “Inertia.” What fears are present? Are the characters fearful of different things? Does fear appear in other stories? 

7.  Compare Jean and Harold’s relationship in “Morning Again” to Gladys and Andy’s. How would you describe their understanding of their roles in their respective relationships? 

8.  In “Love Falling,” there’s a lot of tension in the house. What is the breaking point for Julie? Why does she ultimately decide to leave? 

9.  Woodring describes the weather with much detail. Why do you think this is, and can you draw any connections between the weather and the temperament of the story?  

10.   What do you think Woodring is implying in her observations of belief systems: religious, political, and extraterrestrial? 

11.   Russia makes a frequent appearance in the stories. What do you think it symbolizes? 

12.   The parent/child relationship is often very strained in the stories. What do you think Woodring is trying show the reader?  

13.  When Shannon urges Jean to take the triangle IQ test in “Morning Again,” she responds, “I’ve raised three children.” What do you think this implies about Jean’s values? Shannon’s? 

14.  All of the characters are unique. Is there one in particular you most empathize with? Why or how?  

 

Review: Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan writes with such clarity in Last Night at the Lobster that you can almost smell the seafood gumbo and the Cheddar Bay biscuits.  At 146 pages, this is a spare, minimalist day-in-the-life novella about the lives of the employees at a shabby, downsized Red Lobster restaurant.

The entire story takes place on the last day of business for the New Britain, Connecticut branch of the Darden restaurant chain.  Manny De Leon is the dedicated general manager at The Lobster; he is the picture of corporate loyalty.  The company has decided to close the branch, although he can’t figure out why because his numbers haven’t been that bad.  He takes great pride in “his” store, following company policy to the letter.  

As Manny attempts to stick to the routine and make the best of the last day, the elements are against him.  A blizzard is bearing down, the snow is piling up.  Disgruntled employees come in late or not at all.  Guests are few and far between, although there is some craziness at lunch when a party of 14 comes in without a reservation.  They are understaffed and understocked, and Manny, leading by example as always, must pitch in on the floor and in the kitchen. 

There isn’t a lot of dramatic action, but there is so much emotion.  Manny’s entire adult life has been wrapped up in this job, a job he takes great pride in and can practically do with his eyes shut.  The other employees don’t have the same feelings toward the Lobster as he has; they seem to resent the job, one another, and probably Manny as well. 

Manny spends time snowblowing the sidewalk during the blizzard and looks almost lovingly at the glowing windows of the store through the storm.  For Manny, The Lobster is the haven in the chaos of his life. While ruminating on what to get his pregnant girlfriend Deena for Christmas, he also reminisces about his failed relationship with Jacquie, one of the waitresses.  Manny longs for Jacquie, but she has moved on, and it is much the same with The Lobster.  He is a company man, but the company is indifferent toward him.    

If you’ve ever worked in a chain restaurant during the holidays, or been a victim of corporate downsizing, you will recognize and relate to the staff at The Lobster.  Their minor human triumphs and tragedies are the stuff of every day life in middle America.  This is a powerful little story that will stay with you and one that I would highly recommend.  You will not be able to eat in a Red Lobster or Olive Garden ever again without thinking of Manny and his crew. 

Stewart O’Nan’s latest book, Songs for the Missing, will be out in October 2008, but I’ll be getting an Advanced Readers Copy through Barnes and Noble’s First Look program, so I’ll be writing about it here this summer.