I’ve read 13 books so far toward my goal of 52 books for this year. I’m mostly excited to share my thoughts about what I’ve read this month. I write “mostly” because I was surprised how strongly I disliked one of Neil Gaiman’s books. As a huge fan of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Coraline, and Fragile Things—and an appreciator of The Graveyard Book—I was shocked to realize American Gods would rank among my least favorite books of all time.
Nevertheless, the following reviews will cover what worked well in the books. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the books—or better yet, your own reading goals for the year—I’d encourage you to comment on this post.
Without further ado, here are the mini-reviews for this month. (Mild spoilers may follow.)
After seeing Shasta Grant‘s name appear in some of my favorite literary journals and magazines, I became really curious about her work. Perusing the Split Lip Press store, I noticed Grant’s collection of stories, Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home, was runner-up for the 2016 Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest. I decided to purchase the chapbook and I’m glad reading it gave me the chance to become even more acquainted with Grant’s work.
Summary from the Split Lip Press website:
“Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home delivers on its title with wonderfully knowing stories at once generous, intimate, and transporting. In her assured yet effortless style, Shasta Grant extends a hand to a reader, drawing us into the private worlds of poolside mothers, sleepover girls, men left behind. Her stories may span only a few pages but tap the range of human emotion, thanks to her gimlet eye, knack for precision and crisp, clear voice that will stay with you long after you finish reading — like a close friend.”— Sara Lippmann, 2016 Turnbuckle Chapbook Judge, author of Doll Palace
- Precision seems to be Grant’s major strength regarding her stories. Her clear sentences and concise tales contained only the most compressed and necessary information. The result of this technique is a lean and punchy collection. You’ll find no verbose filler here.
- I could also refer to this chapbook as a good example of work that fits within the genre tradition of literary realism. And while one genre is not necessarily superior to another, I think that Grant writes literary realism better than most literary realist writers I’ve read.
Who should read Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home:
- Fans of very short stories
- Readers who appreciate the genre tradition of literary realism
- Those who enjoy reading about small-town life
- Those who enjoy story collections with themes about home
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction is my go-to guide for flash fiction writing. This isn’t the first time I’ve read it and it won’t be the last. For a writing craft book, it’s by far one of my favorites, and I have much respect for the editing knowledge of Tara L. Masih.
Summary from the Rose Metal Press website:
FEATURING ESSAYS FROM:
Steve Almond • Rusty Barnes • Randall Brown • Mark Budman • Stace Budzko • Robert Olen Butler • Ron Carlson • Pamelyn Casto • Kim Chinquee • Stuart Dybek • Pia Z. Ehrhardt • Sherrie Flick • Vanessa Gebbie • Tom Hazuka • Nathan Leslie • Michael Martone • Julio Ortega • Pamela Painter • Jayne Anne Phillips • Jennifer Pieroni • Shouhua Qi • Bruce Holland Rogers • Robert Shapard • Deb Olin Unferth • Lex Williford
With its unprecedented gathering of 25 brief essays by experts in the field, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction meets the growing need for a concise yet creative exploration of the re-emerging genre popularly known as flash fiction. The book’s introduction provides, for the first time, a comprehensive history of the short short story, from its early roots and hitherto unknown early publications and appearances, to its current state and practice. This guide is a must for anyone in the field of short fiction who teaches, writes, and is interested in its genesis and practice.
What worked well:
- One of the strengths of this collection of essays is how it highlights the ongoing debate focusing on what flash fiction is. Here is a sampling of the tantalizing arguments within this book:
- Robert Shapard: “In other words, character development is a requirement of the novel. But not a requirement of all fiction… The best flashes achieved depth of vision and human significance without ever wanting to be novels.”
- Sherrie Flick: “I never understood the debate about flash fiction: Is it a story; is it a poem? It isn’t a poem because the author doesn’t want it to be a poem.”
- Robert Olen Butler: “To be brief, it is a short short story and not a prose poem because it has at its center a character who yearns.”
- Another great strength of this collection can be found in the given exercises. I admit some of them are more helpful to me than others, but I appreciate all of them. When I’m stuck trying to come up with new material, I pull out this book and choose an exercise to jumpstart my writing.
Who should read The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction:
- Fans of essays about crafting flash fiction
- Readers who enjoy the debate about what flash fiction is
- Those who enjoy learning about the history of flash fiction
- Readers who want to learn from some of the most prolific writers of flash fiction
Here’s a weird secret: I love self-help books. Whether they work to actually change habits or not, I find them immensely valuable for the potential change they can lead to. When I was growing up, my dad read a lot of business self-help and professional development books. He’s one of the hardest working people I know and I’m always aspiring to be more like him regarding my professional relationships. When I saw Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life surface on my OverDrive app, I knew I had to read it. I was also intrigued to read a book co-written by Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard. Despite vastly different political views and different experiences within the white house, they chose to work together and create a business self-help book. The choice to put politics on the backburner and focus on each other’s humanity is an important gesture for all citizens of the United States to consider.
Summary from the Simon & Schuster website:
A guide to personal and professional empowerment through civility and social skills, written by two White House Social Secretaries who offer an important fundamental message—everyone is important and everyone deserves to be treated well.
Former White House social secretaries Lea Berman, who worked for George and Laura Bush, and Jeremy Bernard, who worked for Michelle and Barack Obama, have written an entertaining and uniquely practical guide to personal and professional success in modern life. Their daily experiences at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue taught them valuable lessons about how to work productively with people from different walks of life and points of view. These Washington insiders share what they’ve learned through first person examples of their own glamorous (and sometimes harrowing) moments with celebrities, foreign leaders and that most unpredictable of animals—the American politician.
This book is for you if you feel unsure of yourself in social settings, if you’d like to get along more easily with others, or if you want to break through to a new level of cooperation with your boss and coworkers. They give specific advice for how to exude confidence even when you don’t feel it, ways to establish your reputation as an individual whom people like, trust, and want to help, and lay out the specific social skills still essential to success – despite our increasingly digitized world. Jeremy and Lea prove that social skills are learned behavior that anyone can acquire, and tell the stories of their own unlikely paths to becoming the social arbiters of the White House, while providing tantalizing insights into the character of the first ladies and presidents they served.
This is not a book about old school etiquette; they explain the things we all want to know, like how to walk into a roomful of strangers and make friends, what to do about a difficult colleague who makes you dread coming to work each day, and how to navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of social media in a special chapter on “Virtual Manners.” For lovers of White House history, this is a treasure of never-before-published anecdotes from the authors and their fellow former social secretaries as they describe pearl-clutching moments with presidents and first ladies dating back to the Johnson administration.
The authors make a case for the importance of a return to treating people well in American political life, maintaining that democracy cannot be sustained without public civility.
Foreword by Laura Bush
What worked well:
- One of the huge strengths of this book is the personal anecdotes. Entertaining, enlightening, and persuasive, I had a new perspective of the Bushes and the Obamas after hearing Lea and Jeremy’s stories. I was so charmed by the polite and positive attitudes of the authors that I had to keep reminding myself their focus was on well-known American politicians, and that glowing reviews of someone’s character did not necessarily reflect reality, no matter how much they might want it to. Even so, their stories were interesting and their truth. I respect each of them for their abilities and enjoyed listening to their thoughts.
- Another great strength of this book is the practical advice. While you may be able to guess what they’ve suggested, I would argue that what they’ve written can serve as good reminders too. It’s a great book for someone entering any professional field and I would imagine it’s great for disgruntled employees and managers/bosses as well. There is a lot of empathy in the writing and the message is clear. Treating people well is a logical choice and vital to the professional realm.
Who should read Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life:
- Professionals entering the workforce
- Individuals currently employed who are looking to improve the way they treat people
- Those who are curious about life in the White House
- Readers who enjoy business development and self-help books
This book is downright awesome. Sue Burke has pulled off a major feat with Semiosis. This ambitious novel offers risks that I crave in science ficiton writing. She really went for it and the result is something challenging and beautiful. This is the type of ingenuity I want publishers to invest in more often.
Summary from the Macmillan website:
Colonists from Earth wanted the perfect home, but they’ll have to survive on the one they found. They don’t realize another life form watches…and waits…
Only mutual communication can forge an alliance with the planet’s sentient species and prove that humans are more than tools.
What worked well:
- Burke’s sheer imaginative power in this novel is fantastic. Imagine what mixing up Little Shop of Horrors, Vaster Than Empires and More Slow, Paradises Lost, and Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang could produce and you have something close to Semiosis. But of course it’s more complex than just combining other stories together and that’s what I love about it. The ideas presented in the text are thought-provoking and worth meditating on. The cast of characters—not all human—were intriguing and complex. And the imperfectness of humanity is sharply contrasted with what we as humans may think are our best qualities.
- Complex characters struggling to survive in an unfamiliar and often hostile environment is right up my reader alley. There were many times I thought the characters were going to end up one-sided in this novel and then Burke threw me a curveball and the characters were not so simple anymore. That is difficult to do with a single character. But Burke does it with many different characters and in multiple generations. I really enjoyed each narrator’s perspective along with their interactions with other characters.
Who should read Semiosis:
- Fans of Ursula K. Le Guin and Kate Wilhelm
- Readers who enjoy complex examinations of sentience, colonization, and human subservience
- Fans of multi-generational novels
- Those who appreciate character-driven novels
While I was surprised how much I disliked American Gods, there are definitely things that Neil Gaiman did well in the writing. If this novel doesn’t suit your fancy, I’d recommend trying some of his other books.
Summary from the Macmillan website:
It has been a decade since #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book) rocked the literary world with American Gods—his breathtaking tale of the war on Earth between old gods and new. For those who have yet to experience Gaiman’s bestselling tour de force—a novel USA Today called “a powerful, searing force that makes readers confront what is real and what is not”—and for those eager to enter this astonishing world again, comes the Author’s Preferred Text 10th Anniversary Edition. Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Bram Stoker Awards, with a special introduction by the author, this is American Gods as Neil Gaiman always meant it to be.
What worked well:
- One of the things that worked in American Gods is how Gaiman contests the “founding of America” through the “coming to America” sections. These sections also work to showcase some of the diversity of the American people and the myths we build for ourselves. Often, these side narratives are more interesting than what is happening in the main story.
- Another intriguing concept presented in this novel is how Gaiman shows most of the gods in a weakened state. Not so glorious and mighty, most of the gods are struggling to survive. Humans have a lot of say in the fate of the old and new pantheons. That’s a lot of power for mortals to wield against typically mighty beings.
Who should read American Gods:
- Fans of Norse mythology and other mythologies
- Readers who enjoy themes about life and death
- Those who appreciate stories about fantasy and reality colliding
- Readers who enjoy stories about road trips in America