Being Alive

Maggie Brown and Others by Peter Orner is the recently published collection of short stories by one of my favorite authors. I’ve been a fan of Orner’s work for some years and can honestly say, he just keeps getting better.

There are a number of short stories as well as a novella in this collection. I especially loved the novella about a Jewish furniture salesman named Walt. The story begins with Walt lying in a hospital after suffering a heart episode. Orner is a master of characterization and I came away with the feeling that, although fictional, Walt was someone I knew. In fact, all of Orner’s characters are believable and tangibly human. That in my opinion, is writing at its best.

It is my hope that my followers will read this fine collection of stories. They are an inspiration to the writer in me. I think you will appreciate them as well.

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Neverhome by Laird Hunt is a book sale find which I was impressed with. It is the story of Constance, a young, married woman from Indiana who disguises herself as a man, changes her first name to Ash, and goes off on foot to fight for the North during the Civil War. Her husband stays behind to tend their farm.

During the course of her soldiering, a few people suspect her true gender, but she’s so good at shooting a gun, they turn a blind eye to their suspicions. The story is told in the first-person through Ash’s eyes. I got the impression that she left her husband and home with a sense of duty, but more so with the need to see and experience the world outside. It was an opportunity and she seized it.

After many battles along with being captured and charged as a deserter, Ash eventually returns home. She’s had enough of war and misses her home and husband. What happens next took me completely by surprise. The woman who returns from fighting is not the same upon her return. She carries psychological wounds as do many who have experienced war firsthand.

This novel is a little over two hundred pages, but it packs a wallop. I recommend it.

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There’s No Place Called Home

Women in Sunlight by Frances Mayes was oa grueling chore for me to read. It is the story of Kit, a woman in her forties who is an American now living in Tuscany, Italy and in the process of writing a book about a beloved older friend. Piggybacked onto her story are the experiences of three older American women who have experienced personal losses, befriend each other, and decide to spend a year living in a house for rent next door to Kit. While the new ladies explore the country and forge new lives, Kit discovers she’s pregnant after believing it would never be possible.

There were way too many storylines in this novel for me to follow. The use of “asides” drove me insane! There’s one random character thought about Liz Taylor’s eyelashes that’s so out of context I couldn’t believe it! Show, don’t tell? As I read the novel, I felt as if the author sat with a computer the entire time searching for meaningful fillers and obscure references to include in her book.

I didn’t feel connected to any of the characters; and there were enough of them! I did appreciate the references to food, but I am sorry to say that was about all. I came away relieved that I finished the novel, but disappointed.

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Go West Young Man

The Living by Annie Dillard is a fictionalized novel about early settlers of the Pacific Northwest territory of the U.S. This is the first story I’ve read about pioneers who inhabited this area and I found it fascinating. Not only were the pioneers interesting, but the Native American tribes as well.

Dillard is one of my favorite authors. What I especially liked about this novel is the research which went into it. In my mind, it was reminiscent of Willa Cather’s books, but even better. The hardships endured and accomplishments of these people are brought to life in vivid detail with no holes barred. Although I’ve never visited this region, Dillard’s sensory descriptions helped me see the untamed wilderness through the eyes of its early inhabitants. The characters are believable and human. I felt the pain of the people in the story who tragically lost their loved ones throughout the novel. Their strength and fortitude was truly remarkable.

The story covers the lives of many people over several generations. I thought it was excellent. The last line in particular brought tears to my eyes. Highly recommended!

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Bad Luck

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames is a recently published novel which left me very disappointed. This fictional story about a woman named Stella is narrated by her granddaughter. In the beginning, Stella is an old woman who has undergone a lobotomy. I should have known right there the story would not be a happy one. The premise that Stella’s numerous near death experiences where orchestrated by the ghost of her dead sister with the same name was too fantastic for me.

Stella and her family came to America from Italy just as the Second World War began. Her pervert father, who moved to the U.S. earlier and had abandoned his wife and children on and off for years prior, suddenly arranges for them to emigrate at the last minute. Even though they don’t want to leave their small village, they do because the man of the house calls all the shots.

Once in America, their lives go further downhill – not surprising because the father is a tyrant.

This is one of those books I “stuck with” under the mistaken hope it would get better. Unfortunately, it never did. I recommend skipping this one.

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Les Miserables by Victor Hugo has been much celebrated in part, thanks to theater and musical productions in the past century. However, Hugo wrote this lengthy masterpiece in 1862. I am guessing most people are familiar with the basic storyline. What made this masterpiece worth the time it took to read, it is that I gained a great deal of additional insight into the characters as well as the tumultuous times in France which proceeded it.

This novel is a philosophical statement disguised as a story about a man who is branded and hunted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving relatives. The novel is jam-packed full of Hugo’s lengthy pontificating. So much so, that it became annoying. As I muddled through many of these sermons, I lost track of where the story left off.

Still, this novel holds exceptional value in a historical perspective. Revolutions were taking place around the world. I think Hugo sought to make sense of the common man’s longing for freedom. His characters portray the good, the bad, and especially, the victimized.

I highly recommend this novel. It’s a classic!

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The Hatfields and McCoys

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis by J D Vance is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long while. This is a sad, but true tale written by a young man who had a tumultuous childhood. Thankfully, Vance was able to successfully overcome the fate which many others born and raised in Appalachia often succumb to.

The story told is unfortunately one which is all too common, but what I liked about this book is Vance’s social commentary and analysis of the causes which continue to fuel poverty and ignorance in certain segments of the population in our country. As an Appalachian, he addresses the need for significant social and economic change.

During his formative years, Vance lived in poverty, had a drug addicted mother, multiple father figures, and influential grandparents to whom he could run. After high school, military service in the United States Marines helped him learn many lessons which fueled his success at Ohio State and ultimately at Yale Law School.

Vance succeeded in breaking the cycle of poverty and his memoir goes beyond his experiences to offer advice and hope for others in similar circumstances.

With the exception of the preponderance of curse words employed in this memoir, I learned a great deal about the plight of people living in Appalachia. I pray it’s message is heard and helps others to change their lives for the better. Recommended!

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