The Period Blog

Like me, Sheri from the super-fabulous blog A Novel Menagerie has two preteen daughters.  Inspired by My Little Red Book, we recently chatted about periods: 

Lisa:  I got mine when I was 11, the summer before 6th grade.  How old were you? 

Sheri:  You know, since my brain fell out of my va-jay-jay after I had the twins, I can’t really recall.  I think I was 13, close to 14. 

Lisa:   So 8th or 9th grade, something like that?  Being a bit younger, I guess I was pretty stupid about things.  I know we saw a movie in 5th grade, but it was more about all the wonderful things you can do when you become a woman- you can go horseback riding!  You can ride a bike!  

I was at summer camp and didn’t connect the rusty streak in my undies to the movie at all.  I thought I was dying.  I hid my messy underwear in my duffle bag (gross!)  My mom discovered what happened when she did my laundry after I came home, and she handed me a book called Growing Up and a box of pads.  There was no discussion, no Q & A, and lots of embarrassment.  What about you? 

Sheri:  In our school, we had the sex-ed classes, so I knew it was coming.  Also, most of my friends had theirs before me.. again, I knew it would arrive.  My mom gave me some mini-pads, told me a bit about them, and set me loose.  It wasn’t at all that big of a deal for me.  I think developing my breasts were a much bigger memory for me.  I really had some difficult cramping in high school and took a lot of Motrin during those years.  Did you know that I’m so old that Motrin was by prescription only back then?  Yes… yes it was! 

Lisa:  Breasts- that was a sad subject for me.  I was skinny and flat as a board.  I had nothing going on upstairs, which caused me great embarrassment in junior high. 

How are you preparing your own daughters for their first period? 

Sheri:  I am the world’s biggest embarrassment to the twins.  Whenever I talk about it, they say, “MOM!  We know! We know!”  They never want to talk about it.  They each have some panty-liners and are prepared to let me know when it happens. (Oh, and our school has had some really great classes over the past couple of years). 

Lisa:  Ours too.  My kids know how their bodies work from me, from the classes at school, and from books.  American Girl has a great book called “The Care and Keeping of You.”  It even has a diagram showing how to insert a tampon.  And I’ll be sharing My Little Red Book with them too.

We’ve discussed everything openly although my youngest would rather not talk about it.  The other day I took them to the drugstore and we purchased some “supplies” and cute little zip-up bags to carry them in so they can take them in their backpacks to school.  I want them to be secure in the knowledge that they will know what to do when the time comes.   

Sheri:  One of my twins does and the other doesn’t.  I guess we’re heading to the drug store before school starts.  Thanks for the head’s up! 

Lisa:  Your girls are a little bit older than mine.  Mine are 10 and 11, and as you know my 11 year old is really tiny.  She’ll probably be carrying pads around in her backpack for the next 3 years before she needs to use them.  Although she is very moody, and her skin is starting to break out a little, so you never know.. 

Sheri:  After her recent physical, the doctor told one of my girls that she will start very soon.  In my best estimation, the other one is probably 2-6 months behind her.  Seeing that they are both in women’s sizes now, have acne problems up the wazoo, have body odor issues, and greasy scalps… it’s just a matter of time.  It’s a challenge to get them to focus on their self-care and proper hygiene.  I actually asked the doctor to talk to them a bit about it.  She did and the twins seemed to take it more seriously coming from her than from me.  In fact, they were much better about the acne care after the doctor’s visit. 

Lisa:  That’s a good idea.  I should have the doctor talk with them about it.  It was almost funny last year, trying to get my 4th grader to start wearing deodorant, and her defensively asking, “Why?”  Um, honey?  I hate to say it, but.. you smell.  

Sheri:  Dude!  It’s bad enough with their hormones now… I can only imagine that cramps are going to turn my world upside down!  EEK!  What I’m really concerned about is having the 3 of us starting to all cycle together at the same time.  It will be total mayhem and grouchiness for 10 days straight.  And that’s like a third of the month!  OMG!  

Lisa:  I know, same here!!  My poor husband!  He is SO outnumbered. 

In My Little Red Book, there are essays about how families mark the occasion of ‘becoming a woman’.  Some celebrate with a special dinner, a cake, or a slap in the face.  One mom gave her daughter a dozen roses in a pretty vase, and the daughter kept the dried rose petals in the vase on her dresser for years- I really liked that idea.  I don’t have any family traditions but I think I may start one with my girls.  How do you plan to handle it with the twins? 

Sheri:  I hadn’t really thought about it until the book.  I think flowers is a lovely idea.  It is the beginning of an entirely new phase of their lives. 

Lisa:  Thanks, Sheri, for talking with me today!  This was fun. 

Sheri:  I appreciate you bringing up some great little reminders and tips.  And, you totally know that I’m going to secretly tell you/my other girlfriends when it happens!  It’s almost like a small rite of passage for us moms, too!  Don’t you think?  THANK YOU, for including me in your amazingly wonderful, always fun blog: BOOKS ON THE BRAIN! 

Lisa:  Oh, you are so sweet.  Believe me, I’ll be calling you too when things start flowing in my house!!  I will need to have someone to commiserate with.  It is a rite of passage, a beginning but also an ending too.  It kind of makes me sad that my babies are growing up so quickly.  Ok, I may start crying now.  Pass the tissues, the Motrin and the chocolate.  

And for a good laugh, watch this!

Review: The Mechanics of Falling by Catherine Brady

41mgvfmejll_sl500_aa240_2Title: The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories

Author: Catherine Brady

ISBN: 9780874177633

Pages: 248

Release Date: February 28, 2009

Publisher: University of Nevada Press

Genre: Short Stories, Contemporary Fiction

From the publisher’s website:

The stories in this collection explore those moments when the seemingly fixed coordinates of our lives abruptly give way – when mother love fractures, a faithful husband abandons his family, a conscientious middle-class life implodes, or loyalty demands an excruciating sacrifice. The characters share a fundamental predicament, the struggle to name and embrace some faith that can break their fall. In equal measure, they hunger for and resist this elusive possibility and what it demands of them.

The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories deals with a range of circumstances and relationships, and with characters who must decide what they are willing to risk for the sake of transformation, or for the right to refuse it. The stories trace the effort to traverse the boundaries between one state and another/–between conviction and self-doubt, recklessness and despair, resignation and rebellion. And each story propels the reader to imagine what will happen next, to register the unfinished and always precarious quality of every life. 

I’m a fan of the short story format.  I never really gave much thought to how skilled an author would need to be in order to give the reader a fully developed story, with characters and situations the reader would care about in just a few pages, but think about it.  Without 300+ pages to develop a plot and interest a reader, you’d need to grab them quickly and make each word count.  Catherine Brady does just that with The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories, a collection of 11 short stories loosely connected by geography and by the theme of disappointment. 

All the stories speak to the human condition and the frailties inherent in our relationships with others.  While literary in tone, it is still highly readable and relatable.  Each story is completely unique yet similar, with the common thread being that they are all populated with complex characters that seem worn down by life, who are struggling, who perhaps have compromised too much or made poor choices.  A shift of some sort has taken place; their expectations haven’t been met and they are grasping at something, anything, to make things better, or at least to keep things from getting any worse.     

My favorite story in the collection is called Slender Little Thing, not only for its subject matter but for its structure.  Ms. Brady uses an interesting technique, one I haven’t seen before.  The first paragraph sets up the story of a woman named Cerise who became pregnant at 19 and, having no other marketable skills, took a job as a nanny for another family- raising someone else’s children in order to support herself and her daughter.  Each sentence in the first paragraph is used to begin subsequent paragraphs.. so the second sentence in the first paragraph becomes the first sentence of the next paragraph, and so on.  I’m having difficulty explaining this coherently, but it was a really effective use of repetition and not at all gimmicky.  It seemed nearly poetic and reminded me of a thing I often do myself, repeating something like “Everything will be ok” in my mind in order to convince myself that it’s true. 

Catherine Brady has a rare talent.  Not only was she able to make me care about her characters, but she also made me wonder what they’d do next, and thoughts of them still linger in my head days after finishing this collection.  Her stories grabbed me from the very first paragraph.  Beautifully written and thoughtfully constructed, this is a collection I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys fiction in any form.

Please check out my Q & A with Catherine Brady HERE

Many thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for coordinating this tour.  You can learn more about Catherine and her work on her website.  

Interview: Catherine Brady, author of The Mechanics of Falling

catherine-brady

Today I welcome the lovely and talented Catherine Brady, author of The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories (reviewed HERE).  I wanted to find out more about her after reading her outstanding collection of short stories, and she thoughtfully answered all of my nosy questions for your reading pleasure.


BOTB: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

CB: I was born in Evanston, Illinois, and grew up in a suburb just a little further north from Chicago, Northbrook.

mofBOTB: When did you start writing? How did you get interested in it?

CB: I started to write just about as soon as I learned to read. I’m not sure that counts, though! I started to get serious about writing when I was in college, and then only because a writing teacher drew me aside and encouraged me to apply to a graduate writing program. I grew up in a working class, immigrant family, and it was hard for me to feel that I could dare to be a writer.

BOTB: Along with short stories, you’ve also written a biography. Which type of writing do you prefer? Which is more difficult?

CB: I prefer to write fiction, because I think it uses every resource you have. Writing about fictional characters is rooted in an effort to empathize—to try to see into someone else’s heart, to try to make sense of the mystery of other people. And then you have to strategize how to make a story both convincing and surprising, and you have to think about using language that is both precise and suggestive. It’s like playing a game where you can’t say what you actually want to say but have to give only clues, so that the reader is the one who says, ah, that’s what’s going on here. So you have to use your analytical mind, your creative mind, and your heart, which makes writing fiction the most completely satisfying.

bbok_eb_oThat said, I really enjoyed writing the biography, because I had to learn so much in order to even attempt it. The book is about molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, whose research has important implications for human health (including cancer treatment), so I had to attempt to understand the science. But what really captured my attention was how to find a dramatic arc for her life story, and I was so curious about how she has managed to succeed in such a competitive field when she is such a modest, deferential person. If you met her, you would not imagine what she has accomplished. On the other hand, if you talked to her about science, you’d quickly realize there is a steely mind underneath that sweet exterior. So writing the biography was something like writing a novel, with the difference that my main character was alive and well and fully able to contradict my assumptions or interpretations.

BOTB: Is there a novel in you waiting to come out?

CB: I am working on a novel right now, and I’m really enjoying it. I think that writing the biography has really helped me to think about a character’s life in terms of this longer arc.

BOTB: When you write your short stories, do you start with an idea about a character, an incident, a place, or something else?

CB: Different stories start with different triggers. Usually, a story comes from a glimmer in the corner of your eye. A detail that is just an aside in a story someone else tells you or an image that interests you for reasons you don’t understand. I began The Mechanics of Falling & Other Stories when I saw one of those flyers people post when they’re looking for a room-mate. This one had a spelling error: Looking for a Female Tenet (instead of “tenant”). That slip in language really interested me, and it was only after I wrote a story with that title and a few more stories in the book that I realized there was a thematic issue that really encompasses all the stories in the book. I’m fascinated by the mistakes people make, how much they reveal about what is at the core of a person, and I’m especially interested in the mistakes that we just refuse to admit are mistakes in the face of all kinds of pressure. What you won’t surrender to practicality or reality says so much about what you most need to believe.

BOTB: Do you think a short story collection would be a good choice for a book club, and if so, why?

CB: I think book groups are sometimes reluctant to tackle short story collections, for two reasons. One is that people worry that stories are going to be literary, difficult, and not deliver that basic satisfaction of storytelling and intimacy with a character that you can get from so many novels. But I think good short stories always deliver that, and anything literary is an extra that can intensify this sense of connection, even if you don’t particularly want to analyze it. The second reason that story collections are difficult for book groups is that it’s hard to discuss all the stories in a book at one meeting. Each one offers a whole different set of characters and different themes. But if you realize that you can “browse” a story collection, picking out just a few stories for longer discussion, instead of reading and discussing the book straight through the way that you would a novel, you can have a lot of fun reading story collections. If you discuss even a few of the stories in more depth, it gives you a sense of what’s working in the book as a whole, how these different life predicaments might be connected.

BOTB: Have you had the opportunity to talk with book clubs about The Mechanics of Falling? If so, what was that experience like? Were you surprised by any observations or comments made at a book club meeting?

book_cbl_oCB: I haven’t spoken to book clubs about Mechanics, but I have done so with my previous book, Curled in the Bed of Love. It’s always fun to hear what other people saw in the stories; your readers bring their own experience to the book, so they are always adding something to the meaning –showing you something you couldn’t even have anticipated. My stories are largely concerned with the lives of women who juggle work and family, who aren’t so sure we’ve come a long way, baby, and aren’t so sure they’ve made the “right” compromises in their lives. So if I’m talking to a book club that is largely women in my own age range, we’re talking about ourselves, our lives.

BOTB: What do you like to do in your free time?

CB: Read. And hike.

BOTB: Read any good books lately? Anything you’d like to recommend?

I was just rereading Alice Munro’s story collection, The Love of a Good Woman. Like so many writers, I love her work. And I recently read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is a wonderful novel, told in such an amazing vital voice.

For more information about Catherine and her work, please visit her website.

Many thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for coordinating this tour and another big THANK YOU to Catherine Brady!!

Teaser Tuesdays – 3/31/09

 

Teaser Tuesdays~

tuesday-tMiz B and Teaser Tuesdays asks you to: Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

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fallMy teaser this week comes from an outstanding short story collection called The Mechanics of Falling by Catherine Brady.  I will be hosting Catherine on her virtual book tour for  TLC Book Tours on April 22nd.  This excerpt comes from page 22 in the story called “The Dazzling World”:

“Making a fuss was Cam’s way of encountering the world.  It would be his loud voice that boomed out a protest when someone cut in line at the grocery store, prompting laughter, or his contentious remark about their neighbor’s loud music late one night that would result in an invitation to the next party.”

 

Yeah, I know somebody like that.  Actually, I married him.  

What are you reading this week?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Teaser Tuesdays – 3/24/09

Teaser Tuesdays~

tuesday-tMiz B and Teaser Tuesdays asks you to: Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

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full_swirsky_weber_340_4001My Teaser this week doesn’t come from a book, but from a short story on the Science Fiction and Fantasy website called Tor.com.  

I’ve been seeking out short stories in preparation for a book I need to review for a virtual book tour next month.  This story is wild and beautiful and unlike anything else I’ve ever read.  It’s called Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky and you can read it in it’s entirety on the Tor.com site.  The illustration is by Sam Weber.

“Sometimes, her laughter held a bitter undercurrent, and on those occasions, he understood that she was laughing more at herself than at anyone else. Sometimes when that happened, he would go to hold her, seeking to ease her pain, and sometimes she would spontaneously start crying in gulping, gasping sobs. “

Please go read this story, and then come back and tell me what you thought of it!  I need to discuss it with someone because it blew me away.  Rachel Swirsky’s talent is staggering.  Go see.

Tuesday Teasers

 
tuesday-tMiz B and Teaser Tuesdays asks you to:

Grab your current read.  Let the book fall open to a random page.  Share with us two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.

You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!
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26318352My teaser comes from The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted And Other Small Acts of Liberation, a book of 13 stories by Elizabeth Berg.  I know the rules say to share 2 sentences, but I’m going to share 4.  This comes from page 10 and is from the first story, The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted.

“In the afternoon I rented two moves, Big Night and Tortilla Soup.  Which made me starving again even though I wasn’t.  How many people went running out for Italian food after Big Night?  Hands?”

This makes me laugh because Big Night really DID make me hungry!  I never saw Tortilla Soup but now I’ll have to rent it.

What are you reading this week?

Guest Review: The Best Place to Be by Lesley Dormen

Ellen, a very cool New Yorker from the very cool blog Wormbook (please stop by!), wrote an excellent review of Lesley Dormen’s The Best Place to Be, currently on a virtual book tour through TLC Book Tours, which I am publishing here with Ellen’s permission.  Enjoy!

If you somehow haven’t read it yet, Melissa Bank’s instantly successful novel THE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING presents a chronicle of a woman growing up through various episodes, mostly involving some man, which don’t so much build as layer over each other to deliver a portrait. Often imitated but never duplicated, Bank’s work is also probably the most popular contemporary novel in stories, but retains the chronological orientation of a more classic novel. Much more interesting — and more difficult to pull off — is the out-of-order sequence of Lesley Dormen’s book THE BEST PLACE TO BE, in which each story acts simultaneously as a self-contained story and another shade to the portrait of New Yorker Grace Hanford.

The first inkling I got that this book wouldn’t be just another Bank pretender was the mention, in the opening story “The Old Economy Husband,” of… well, a husband. Dormen doesn’t try to build suspense over whether her character, who in later chapters is single, attached and having affairs, will ever reach that conventional chick-lit milestone of getting hitched. And honestly, Grace’s relationships with men in THE BEST PLACE TO BE often take a back seat to other relationships in her life, from the disappearance of a close friend in college to the strain she feels trying to communicate openly with her mother. Each story is built up over a string of sensually evoked moments, from an early dinner of lobster tails to the sight of her husband reading late at night in a hotel tub.

Grace’s career is secondary to the novel, true, but her life is not without event, albeit the kind of small turns of which most lives have been built. But as we travel back in time, a portrait develops without the self-consciousness of “explaining” how Grace ended up the way she is in “The Old Economy Husband.” Her rocky rapport (often lack thereof) with her father and stepfather are turns in themselves, not (or not merely) insights into her future relationships with men. These causal relationships are so often forced in the service of epiphany or drama, it’s a relief that Grace herself isn’t able to reconcile all these stories of her past into her current self. That might not be the best place to be, but it’s a place we can all get to.

Wormbook was the first stop on Lesley Dormen’s blog book tour for the paperback release of THE BEST PLACE TO BE. You can download a PDF excerpt from the book at Dormen’s Website, LesleyDormen.com

Blog Stop Book Tour featuring Susan Woodring

This is my first time hosting an author on a blog tour (thank you, Mary Lewis from Blog Stop Book Tours, for arranging this!), and I’m so excited to welcome Susan Woodring, author of the brilliant short story collection, Springtime on Mars (reviewed HERE). I mentioned to Susan that Books on the Brain focuses on book clubs, and she suggested she write about why a short story collection is a great choice for a book club. Here’s what she came up with!

Coming into This Planet Again and Again: The Case for Short Story Collections
By Susan Woodring

“A story collection?” The woman, drifting amid a crowd of authors and book fair browsers, gives me a look of uncertainty: wrinkled brow, a moment’s hesitation. I touch the cover of my book, channeling words of comfort to it like a mother speaking to a distressed child. It is my child, my baby, caught now under the glare of this stranger’s scrutiny. Then, brightening, the woman says, “Say, don’t you also have a novel?”

As a novelist-turned-short-story-writer, I face this kind of thing all the time. Most people prefer non-fiction, but if they are going to read fiction, let it be a novel. They want to get cozy with a group of characters, live with those characters for a bit, follow them across a stretch of narrative time, all the while hoping for some happiness—or at least resolution—at the end. They want reading fiction to be a full-blown relationship, not a date; a home, not a glitzy hotel. They want to settle in, hunker down, and read.

I don’t blame them. I love novels. There’s nothing like moving into a fictitious world, getting to know its inhabitants, making friends, staying for dinner. Even better: I love it when a novel is so good, I come to the end with reluctance; I want it to go on and on. I completely understand the attraction. Yet, there are days when a girl needs a night out on the town. She needs a romp, no strings attached. To be dazzled, drawn close, given a glimpse of the funny, the ironic, the poignant, the wild. A girl needs a short story.

I wonder why fiction-readers often shy away from short story collections. You would think, with how limited everyone’s time is these days, a person would be thrilled to depart on a literary adventure that she or he can begin and complete in thirty minutes’ time. If coming to the end of a novel is satisfying, then wouldn’t a short story collection—with ten or more endings—be even more satisfying? Why wouldn’t a reader who finds joy and companionship with a few characters over the course of three hundred pages be all the richer for a series of quick but intimate encounters with dozens of characters?

The short-story form, I suppose, has a reputation for being hyper-literary. There are a fair number of scholarly journals out there publishing rather dry, pointedly confusing and—dare I say it?—boring stories. It is true that the short story is the purest, most artful form of fiction. While some writers do blatantly misuse the form, only wanting to show how smart they are—how elite—most short story writers simply love the art of short fiction. Short stories are, at their best, quirky, humorous, searching, true, and smart. The short story is able to crystallize a single, breath-catching moment in a character’s life—a moment that will, for that character, change everything. You can liken a well-written short story to a brilliant gem held under a light, the writer turning it just so until it glints brilliantly for a breath-taking instant. These extraordinary glimmers of truth, depth, and nuance flash again and again in a good collection.

I think a short story collection is the perfect choice for book clubs. For starters, there’s the obvious advantage of each story’s being self-contained. If you’re not smitten with a story in the first few pages, if it’s about dogs and you loathe dogs or if something about the narrative voice or the central character irritates you, fine. Move on to the next. The beauty of a short story collection is its variety; you’re almost guaranteed to find something you’ll like. Even the most eclectic mix of individuals can find something to love in a book of stories. More: a collection of short stories written by the same author is the best of both worlds. Sure, there’s the variety, but there’s also a common thread running through the stories. A collection of stories contains recurrent themes, situations, and life-questions. Each story offers a new way of seeing a common theme or motif. This makes for a lively, insightful, and challenging book talk. Also, a short story collection can be as comforting as a novel since you’re in the hands of the same author throughout. The scenery might change, and the people are different, but it’s a familiar voice speaking the story to you; you can be assured this writer will guide you through this story just as skillfully and as faithfully as he or she guided you through the last.

I don’t know if I’m able to convince the doubting woman at the book fair or how much success I’ll find in my mission to turn the world into short-story readers. As a novelist and a short-story writer, though, I can say which is the hardest to write, which demands the most from me in terms of talent, restraint, and insight. When you write a novel, you reinvent the world. When you write a short story collection, you reinvent the world ten times over. Reading a short story collection, then, is as big, as triumphant, as satisfying as coming into this planet again and again, each time seeing something new.

Susan’s Bio (from her website): Susan Yergler Woodring, an award-winning short story writer and novelist, grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. She also lived in California, Alabama, Illinois, and Indiana as a child. Upon graduating from Western Carolina University, she spent a year teaching in Vologda, Russia before moving to the foothills of North Carolina to teach middle school. Susan is a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte. She is the author of one novel, The Traveling Disease. Her short fiction has earned many honors, including the 2006 Elizabeth Simpson Smith Short Fiction Award and the 2006 Isotope Editor’s Prize. Her work has appeared in Quick Fiction, Yemassee, Ballyhoo Stories, Slower Traffic Keep Right, The William and Mary Review, Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing, Passages North, turnrow, and Surreal South (Press 53). Susan currently lives, writes, and home-schools her two children in Drexel, North Carolina.

Susan Woodring’s website can be found HERE

Susan has agreed to give away a copy of her book to one lucky winner. Leave a comment HERE by midnight PST, Friday, June 6th. Thank you, Susan! Wishing you all the best of luck with your short story collection, Springtime on Mars!

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?  

 

The Sunday Salon: Happy Mother’s Day!

Happy Mother’s Day!  Mine is a double whammy-it is both Mother’s Day and my birthday, which is a little like having your birthday on Christmas-you get a lot of 2 for 1 presents.  But I’m not complaining-  next to the lilacs my mother brought over for me I see a vase filled with tissue paper flowers my 3rd grader made in school, a hand painted mug she made in Brownies, and assorted gifts wrapped in bright green paper.  Once everyone wakes up we’ll have cake and ice cream for breakfast, a sweet birthday tradition at our house.  We will be celebrating later with extended family at The Chart House for brunch. 

It was a good week for reading.  I finished Matrimony and worried that my review might upset the author, who I’ve been emailing with since his guest post.  It’s a really good book, but there were things that bothered me, and I almost didn’t post the review at all for fear he might be offended by some of my comments.  To my relief he was fine and did not take offense.  I’d never been in a situation like that before and it made me think about reviews; why we do them, how important it is to be honest and what we should be concerned about when we’re writing them.  Matrimony will be discussed on May 22nd at Every Day I Write the Book and at the end of June at Planet Books.  

Speaking of planets, I received an amazing little collection of short stories from Blog Stop Book Tours called Springtime on Mars by Susan Woodring.  These stories are pitch-perfect and I absolutely loved them; I laughed, I cried, I emailed the author and gushed like a schoolgirl!  The author is doing a virtual book tour and will be stopping by on June 6th.  She is also planning a guest post for Books on the Brain about why a short story collection is a great pick for a book club.  I can’t wait to read her thoughts on that.  My copy doesn’t have discussion questions for reading groups, but later versions do. 

My mailman is going to be busy the next couple of weeks, loaded down with the books I’ve acquired all over the internet.  I’m waiting on a bunch of ARCs and free books from various places:  Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan from B&N’s First Look program, The Wishing Year by Noelle Oxenhandler from Library Thing’s Early Reviewer Program, Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs from the publisher, The Safety of Secrets by DeLaune Michel and The Space Between Before and After by Jean Reynolds Page from Avon A-the contemporary Women’s Fiction division of Harper Collins, Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe by Jennie Shortridge (I LOVED her book, Eating Heaven), and Netochka Nezvanova from Penguin Classics.  I think there are a couple more but I’ve started losing track.  I’d put all the links in, but it’s my birthday and I just don’t feel like tracking them all down!  

My book club is reading Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks for our June 8th meeting, and it is also the May choice for the online book club at The Inside Cover.  Year of Wonders is about the decimation of a British village by the bubonic plague in a single year 1665-1666.  I haven’t started it yet, but I’m going to tonight.  If you’ve read the book and want to join in to the online discussion, be sure to head over to The Inside Cover for details. 

Don’t forget about my giveaways:  The Next Thing on My List by Jill Smolinski and Matrimony by Joshua Henkin.  Leave a comment on the above posts by Thursday, May 15th for a chance to win a copy.

Have a great Sunday, and Big Hugs to all you moms on Mother’s Day!