WWW Wednesday – 11/28

WWW Wednesdays

In an effort to bring a little more regularity to this blogger’s recently-hectic life, I’m

jumping on board the WWW Wednesday train. WWW Wednesday is hosted by Sam over

at Taking on a World of Words — if you’re interested in participating simply answer the following questions:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

November has been a good reading month for me so far — I feel like I’ve had quite a bit of variety in the genres I’ve picked up. First things first, though!

Here’s what I’m currently reading . . .

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The Ensemble by Aja Gabel. This is my book club’s selection for November and we’re due to discuss it in just a few days — eep! — so naturally, I just started it yesterday. I’ve been listening to the classical pieces listed at the beginning of each “part” of the book which adds to the reading experience, in my opinion. This novel was extremely hyped on Instagram in the spring when it was published, so I went into it with a little apprehension; but so far, I’m quite invested in the characters and the way their storylines so badly want to diverge. The Ensemble follows four musicians who belong to a string quartet and desperately seek fame and success — but at what cost? How much will they sacrifice to achieve their dreams?

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. This is my first audiobook (ever!) and I’ve started listening to it as a means of motivating myself to get on the elliptical during Henry’s afternoon naps. The premise is simple: nine individuals, seeking change or a rest or some sort of personal growth arrive at Tranquillim House for a ten-day retreat. The resort has a reputation for its inventive and intense methods, and the guests are eager to begin — if not a bit apprehensive. When the gong sounds and 5 days of silence (Noble Silence) begin, things begin to get . . . interesting. Thus far, I’m really enjoying the narrator, and I’ve been surprised by the number of times I’ve laughed out loud.

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. This is the third book in the Outlander series and part of a buddy read I’m doing with bookstagram buddies @shihtzus.and.book.reviews and @booksgloriousbooks. We’ve been crawling through this one, a bit (started it October 1), but I’m finding the pacing much better than the previous book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. While I’m not generally a fan of romance novels, Gabaldon’s Outlander series has me hooked, and I don’t think that’s likely to change anytime soon.

Here’s what I’ve recently finished . . .

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An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. This nonfiction title was sent to me for review by Henry Holt Books. This work of true crime/investigative nonfiction is an unexpected gem: covering the disappearance of young, charismatic Rey Rivera, who was discovered dead and later proclaimed — unbelievably — to have committed suicide at the historic Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Sprinkled in among the exhaustive research regarding Rivera’s suspicious death, Brottman has included interesting asides about the history of the Belvedere Hotel and its many suicides over the decades. This work of nonfiction also includes more than a few spot-on observations about the human psyche, our fascination with morbidity, and tendencies toward blame within the pages.

Here’s what’s next . . .

I’ve already started compiling a list of wintry reads I hope to get to in December. Here’s a couple I’m especially looking forward to.

There’s also a strong possibility I’ll reread The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey because I loved that book so dang much last year. If you’re in the market for a magical, sweet, and emotional read — I can’t recommend it enough!

What’s on your December reading list? Give me some wintry ideas in the comments section, if you will; and as always, happy reading, friends!

Flash Write: What she’s not thinking…

What she’s not thinking about takes up more brain-space than it ought to. She grits her teeth — an ungainly quirk from earlier than she can remember — and grunts a little as she heaves and tugs. It’s a grueling task, this dragging and pushing along; and her un-thoughts aren’t budging.

A hand slips, her teeth mash against one another so that a grating noise escapes — not thinking, notthinking, NOTTHINKING — 

like sour bile, the eruption:

He is her neighbor.

He is not a biology teacher.

He is heavier than he looks.

His hand grazes the dirt, drags a little trail through the grit like a grubby Hansel and Gretel.

* * *

Three miles away, there is a sad excuse for a rest stop, slouched alongside an idle highway. Cars whisper by in the dark, lights cutting through the murky night hours every so often, no rhythm to their migration. The building is ugly, its cinderblocks every bit as bland as the day they were cobbled together so that passersby could relieve themselves with a shred of decency (but only just). The state department abandoned responsibility for upkeep long ago — a new road was built and traffic redirected toward bigger cities and broader horizons and gleaming stations that were more remote-strip-mall-with-bathrooms than this pop-machine-and-outhouse combo plopped amid a rare stand of trees.

A few shrubs spring from the earth, a bit too earnestly, perhaps; it’s unclear whether they were planted or an accident disguised as a wandering deer’s droppings. Overhead, a light whines. It’s miraculous, really, the glowing orb. Its filaments should’ve burned up years ago. Maybe it’s solar-powered — there’s a thought! This grousing bulb, a piece of nighttime sunlight just hanging over the gray bricks and curling brambles and cracked-asphalt parking lot like a lost lamb in a clearing brimming with wolves.

The bathrooms themselves reek of misuse. The only toilet paper that lingers are the bits sticking to suspect pools of liquid on the floor — is it urine? toilet water? liquified worm remains? — and the stall doors that remain are peppered with angular graffiti dug into the metal with knives.

Call Shanel for a wild time! 555-0872

F*ck you b*tch

The biggest poser in the world is the one who reads these words and thinks “not I”

Out front, where the open-doored entryways gape, a water fountain marks the divide. Water trickles from the spigot whether it’s in use or not, and it’s one of those impotent structures that teases children with a burble so slight they must press their lips to the lukewarm metal or face the consequences of inconceivable thirst.

The rest stop is miles away from the nearest town, but no katydids chirp tonight. There is only the buzz of the light, the soft gurgling of the fountain, the occasional zooooosh of a car.

* * *

It’s been hours, she thinks. Possibly years. The sun shimmied south of the horizon long ago, temperatures sinking right alongside her, but the woman’s sweat pools at the center of her lower back before gliding downward to fester.

She should’ve never come out here, she thinks. Should’ve never agreed to the job, or its constricting terms, or dinner with a man who claimed he helped surly teenagers comprehend the complexities of hibernating tree frogs and the deteriorating ozone. Should’ve never.

* * *

The sun hangs high in the sky, its brilliance off-putting against the cracked hopeless earth. A bird trills nearby, in one of the shrub-trees planted so long ago; the sound is a dirge. Nothing lives here, that much is clear.

The grass crepitates underfoot: a child explores, looking for cicada shells and ground squirrels while her family stretches at the car. Her father glances in her direction — a sliding of the eyes, quick and brief — and calls to her. Amelia, don’t go too far! Her brother squints toward her, freckles one hand shading his brow like a scout searching for enemies on the horizon. Shrugging, he pops the tab on a Coke; she can hear the fizzing from thirty feet away, she thinks. It’s that silent here.

A line parts the dirt path — is it a path if it’s wider than it is long? — and she crouches to peer more closely. The middle, a gully, edged on either side by ridges of crumbling dirt. Little ridges in the middle, here and there, teeny mountainous peaks. The girl looks back, where it began, and forward again — aha! A trail! She shimmies with joy and tramps farther from the ugly gray building. This line is like a treasure map, she decides.

Her father can only just see the blue of her cap soon; but he does not worry. There’s nobody around for miles. Let the girl stretch her legs a bit — after all, they’ve still got hours to drive. There’s no one as far as the eye can see.

* * *

In the side of the small hill, the girl finds a hollow spot where the earth makes a cup, or a little bowl. If she sits in it she’ll get her shorts dusty, but she’s certain her mom won’t mind too long. The ground is crumbly and little clods tumble down when she sits. From here, no one can see her, anyway.

The girl is just beginning to think how lovely it would be if a fairy popped out of that tree stomp over yonder, or a wild Sioux chief piled over the top of the dried knoll on his painted horse, when something does appear.

There, at the edge of the hill-cup, is a lump. A something, but what sort of something, she can’t quite be certain. In a duck-like waddle, she scoots closer, dag-blasting herself for forgetting the plastic magnifying glass in the car. It’s not great (it did come from one of those mail-in thingies on the back of a box of Wheaties, after all), but even the scratched eyepiece would’ve come in handy on this Real Exploratory Hunt.

The girl probes the dirt gently. Delicate fingertips brush aside dirt-crumbs, wisps of dried grass, a hard-shelled beetle with malevolent pincers atop his head. The thing she’s found is stiff, and it’s hard to tell beneath the cover of grime, but she thinks — is it possible? — it must be a fingertip!

She presses her tiny, peach-padded pointer to the filth-crusted one. It is the size of a nickel, she thinks; maybe a quarter. Her fingertip is much smaller, a pencil eraser. She cannot stop marveling at this disparity — large to small, small to large — or the good fortune of stumbling upon this treasure. It’s like a button, pushing up from the earth, and she has always loved buttons.

When she hears her father’s holler come careening over the hilltop, really, too close for comfort, the girl goes running.

The button is her secret. She won’t share it with anyone.

* * *

The woman is hours away from the rest stop. Her car runs hot, no good on a day like today, so she drives without the luxury of air conditioning. Blue-black strands stick to her temples, dotted here and there with sweat that beads up before running down her jawline and carving a path to her seat, where it pools. Dirt crowds beneath her fingernails, pushing in so that she can feel the nail longing to lay against flesh again. She digs a toothpick under the nails of her left hand and her shoulders rise a bit at the excised grime. She looks up, habitually; shudders.

The rearview mirror has been torn from its place at the helm.

The rest stop is her secret. She won’t share it with anyone.

7 Books to Read if You Love a Rural Vibe

I can remember thinking in high school, Why are so many books set in the city? I was born and raised in a rural area where cows outnumbered humans, and had such a difficult time fully relating to the idea of life on the crowded streets of the Big Apple or London; these were places I’d never been, and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have pizza delivered to the door (our closest option: Pizza Hut, 27 miles away) or to spend thirty minutes traversing a few city blocks (you could get from one side of town to the other in 3 minutes, if you hit the stoplights just right).

Obviously, I didn’t give up on these titles; part of the joy in reading is, for this little reader on the prairie, “traveling” to other times or places that differ significantly from my own life. That being said, there’s just something about rural literature that I adore — the homey feel I get when I read about an old dirt road leading to nowhere under a canopy of trees, the not-so-anonymous vibes of small-town crime, the intimate knowing between neighbors who’ve team-raised half the kids in the community.

In honor of this love affair with rural America, I give to thee: A List of Renee’s Favorite Rural Reads.

  1. The Line That Held Us by David Joy. Published by Putnam Books, August 2018. If you’re in the market for something gritty, something utterly compelling, something sofrigginmindblowinglyEXCELLENT that you can’t put it down, look no further. I picked this one for my August BOTM selection and just got around to reading it in September and I still haven’t stopped thinking about this glorious work of fiction. (Or recommending it to, like, everyone.)
  2. Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache Series. Published by Minotaur Books, 1990 – present. I’m only three books in (Still Life, A Fatal Grace, and The Cruelest Month), but these cozy mysteries do not disappoint. Nestled in the teeny town of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada, the book isn’t *technically* rural; however, the small-town vibes are terrifically reminiscent of the upbringing of anyone who’s been part of a community of a couple hundred. Everyone in Three Pines knows everyone else, all are quick to welcome — and assess — newcomers, and the small-town feel is utterly endearing.
  3. Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. Published in 1933. This satirical work of fiction examines a family of sharecroppers in Georgia during the Great Depression. The narrative is centralized on a family of poor white farmers — the Lesters — who are struggling to survive in an era that no longer needs all hands on deck to cultivate, plant, and harvest cotton. The Lesters are ignorant, depraved, and some of the most darkly-comical characters I’ve ever read. Often repulsive and darkly hysterical*, this tragic portrait of 1930s America  depicts rural life in an unfathomable time.
  4. Descent by Tim Johnston. Published by Algonquin, 2015. Nestled in among the Rocky Mountains, Descent takes readers to the dark places that exist in the shadows between family members. The Courtland family heads off on a family vacation prior to the eldest daughter’s departure to college. What should be relaxing and rehabilitating ends in despair when the daughter disappears without a trace on an early morning run. This novel isn’t purely set in the countryside — there are some forays into the city as family members search for their missing daughter and sister; but much of the novel takes place within the wooded mountains or rural areas outside the city, at times both blissfully lonesome and achingly void.
  5. The High Divide by Lin Enger. Published by Algonquin, 2014. This western novel features the Pope family, living on the prairie of Minnesota in 1886 and newly abandoned by Ulysses, father and husband. Leaving without a word of explanation and hardly a farewell, Ulysses leaves his two sons and wife reeling: where could he have possibly gone? It doesn’t take long for the boys to set off after him, truly a wild goose chase in an era unprivileged with cell phones and social media. This work of historical fiction offers spectacular views of the prairieland and Midwest of more than a century ago and I am here for it.
  6. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Published by Little, Brown, 2012. If you read my review of this spectacularly charming work of fairy-tale-esque fiction last winter, you’ll already know I was utterly captivated by Ivey’s lonesome Alaskan couple, childless and increasingly individual as the months pass by. When the pair builds a snow child on a whim during the first snowfall of the season, things take a turn for the better and the couple soon discovers an orphaned girl, roaming about the woods. Is she a manifestation of their snow child? Is she the product of homesteaders, long dead and gone? And more importantly — is she theirs to love forever? Surrounded by nothing by the breathtaking and brutally remote Alaskan wilderness, The Snow Child is a perfect read for those seeking a rural setting . . . and better still, it’s ideal for these chilly and snowy winter days.
  7. Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. A simple, but evocative novel in which several ordinary characters — a father raising two sons alone, two solitary bachelors dwelling together, a pregnant teenager thrown out by her mother, and a compassionate schoolteacher — are strung together in an unembellished by heartwarming manner. Set in the plains east of Denver, the novel is a portrait of the simplicity and community that comes with life in rural America.

And here’s a peek at a few titles I haven’t read yet, but am highly anticipating due to their rural vibes!

  • A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Published by Tin House, 2018. An unconventionally wrought story about a young boy growing up near a river in the Midwest, sans parents. The book is told in glossary-style, a list of informative vignettes about various subjects the boy encounters in his lifetime. The book promises to be a coming-of-age tale, and you all know how I feel about those. 🙂
  • The Worst Hard Time (nonfiction) by Timothy Egan. Published by Mariner Books, 2006. This work of nonfiction is mostly focused on the area I now occupy: the vast — and unforgiving — southwest region of Kansas. A portrait of the dust storms and utter calamity that devastated the Midwest in the 1930s, The Worst Hard Time is “the story of those who stayed and survived — those who, now in their eighties and nineties, will soon carry their memories to the grave . . . “. I’m particularly interested in this title as my grandfather-in-law has often imparted memories of his own upbringing during the Dirty Thirties, an era which is unfathomable to most of us today.
  • Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich. Published by Putnam, 2015. Now this one — this book is what I’m all about, friends. Have you ever watched Lawless,  the movie about a moonshine-making family in the hills of Appalachia during the Prohibition era? I have. Seven times. I’ll probably watch it again tonight, now that it’s on my mind. Anyway — Bull Mountain seems to fall in line a bit with the rowdy gang of vigilantes in Lawless. The novel features a family history of down-home mobsters running moonshine, pot, and meth across state lines, with virtually no legal consequences. This is all well and good until one of the sons — Clayton — decides to become a law-man and separate himself from his family of criminals . . . until the federal government steps in and Clayton is forced to reconsider where his loyalties truly lie. I have high hopes for this one, my friends. HIGH.

Got any other great rural reading suggestions for me? Drop ’em below in the comments! I’m always on the lookout for books that bring life to the places tucked away in forgotten valleys or between mountain towns or left untouched among the prairie grasses of the Midwest. After all, home is where the heart is; and once you’ve loved the country, your home will never change.

*I read Tobacco Road in college in a course titled “Literature of the South.” My classmates were deeply disturbed that I (& my darkly humorous professor) found the book “funny” at times. I’d like to clarify that this isn’t a “OMGLOL” book, but rather, a book that one has to laugh at here and there in order not to weep at the sheer depravity of the characters featured. And honestly, it is funny sometimes. It’s satire.