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Friday, May 23, 2014

Reunion with Old Friends

I feel like I just spent time with old friends after completing Ellen Gilchrist's most recent short story collection, Acts of God.  Initially, I was a bit disappointed in the book. Some of the stories felt a bit like fluff stuff. For instance, "Collateral" - about a single mother in the National Guard who helps out after Katrina - seems too much like chick lit.  But by the time I got to "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," and saw Anna Hand's niece had a starring role in this story about terrorist attacks in London, I felt right at home.  And in "The Dogs," I got to hear from good ole Rhonda Manning, who is up to her old tricks. "The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath" was a beautiful story about a woman taking her life in her own hands. "A Love Story" was a gem of a short, short story. And it just got better with the final two stories in the collection - "Jumping Off Bridges into Clean Water"  and "Hopedale: A History in Four Acts." All the stories in this book are centered on people dealing with natural and unnatural forces which are beyond their control - hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, disease, death - all acts of God.  And Ellen Gilchrist's unique voice - down to earth, honest and so real - make each one of these situations feel genuine and true. The stories feel like they are being told on the front porch.

Since finishing this book, I've been thinking a lot about why I adore the writing of Ellen Gilchrist. First, I think she is a master of the short story. Second, her characters are accessible. They are my people. One character in "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" who was a Jackson, MIssissippi society lady said, "I'm not interesting. I'm a cliche inside a self-fulfilling prophecy inside a stereotype." Whoa, Ellen nailed it with that line. I know that woman and many others like her.  Not only does Ellen Gilchrist write about my people, she also writes about my places - Jackson, New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Delta. Her characters populate my world and I feel like I'm with old friends.  Ellen Gilchrist's books are among the very short list of books I actually re-read. I relate to her characters even now, 31 years after I started reading them. I received my first Ellen Gilchrist book, In the Land of Dreamy Dreamsfrom my dear friend Beth in 1983. I guess you could say Ellen's characters and I have grown into middle age together.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Best Books First

“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”

Thoreau was right. There are so many books to read that sometimes I feel overwhelmed and I am definitely not going to waste my precious time with books that are not the best. So I follow Thoreau's advice and read the best books first. Recently, I've enjoyed The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Carry on Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton, Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo and The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech. Two children's books, one essay collection, and one novel. 

I'm calling Carry on Warrior an essay collection, but it's really a collection of blog posts by my new hero, Glennon Doyle Melton. Her honesty and skilled storytelling echo Anne Lamott, my favorite truth teller.  She says, “I used to numb my feelings and hide, and now I feel my feelings and I share them. I’m not afraid of my feelings anymore. I know they can come and they won’t kill me. And that they can take over for a little while if they need to. But at the end of the day, they’re just guides. They’re guides to tell me what the next right thing is for me to do.” Read her blog, Momastery, and you'll want to read this book. More later about the other books