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Posts Tagged ‘Months and Seasons’

 

  • Months and Seasons by Christopher Meeks
  • Publisher: White Whisker Books (April 7, 2008 )
  • Paperback: 172 pages
  • ISBN-10: 0615188702
  • ISBN-13: 978-0615188706
  • I connected with Christopher Meeks when he responded to a post I wrote about the difficulty my book group has had discussing short stories; he wrote an excellent guest post which offered several suggestions on how to approach a short fiction collection, including the proposal that there might be a theme of sorts running through the stories.  He says that “short story collections as a whole should be thought of as concept rock albums … some stories are lighter than others, and, as in a good album or concert, the reader’s emotions should be like [a] roller coaster … ups and downs, and the loop is a surprise.” 

    Christopher offered me a review copy of his latest collection, Months and Seasons.  I gladly accepted, eager to approach short stories with an enlightened eye!  This is a group of eleven short fiction pieces “about time – narratives of different people at different ages.” 

    His simile to a roller coaster is apt here; some of the stories gently unfold, others surprise with their twists and turns.  The work is quite varied in style, but consistent in its high quality.  I was reminded of Roald Dahl’s short pieces when I read “The Farms at 93rd and Broadway”, about an older couple who unexpectedly attend a hypnosis demonstration instead of the Broadway show they had set out to see; by the end of the piece I was wondering which character was showing signs of senility and which was bluffing.

    Some pieces are heavy on dialogue, others rely more on detailed narration.  “The Holes in My Door” begins as a piece about a man suffering from depression more than a year after his wife has left him.  Meeks deftly tells the tale in the first person, as the unnamed narrator slips deeper and deeper into paranoia:  “I heard noises outside each night, things I had never noticed from my room before – an odd, loud cawing for instance.  Couldn’t be a bird – few birds are active at night.  Must be a robber calling to his cohort …” 

    At the young end of the age spectrum is a 7-year-old girl at camp, afraid of getting in the lake for swim lessons.  At the opposite end is a 78-year old man and his experience of “The Old Topanga Incident.”  This story is based on a ravaging fire that consumed over 16,000 acres in November 1993; it is gripping not only because of the way Meeks tells of the force of nature that is the Santa Ana winds fueling the fire, but also because of the urgency expressed by the point of view Meeks chooses.  “The Old Topanga Incident” is told as if the narrator is telling it to you, not you-the-reader, but you-the-protagonist, as you watch all your worldly, and highly-prized, possessions, burn to ash:

    You open the door and you see a number of things simultaneously:  two firemen in bright yellow rubberized coats stand before you, shouting, “You’ve got to get out now!”  Two hundred yards up the hill is a wall of flame, and the house of the svelte woman with the dog burns brightly as if it were made of gasoline.  Flames shoot high.  Embers the size of your fist land in the juniper and cypress trees in your yard, on your car, in the driveway.

    The end of Months and Seasons offers a “bonus track”, a story from his upcoming collection The Brightest Moon of the Century.  Each of the stories in the book center around the character Edward, parceling out bits and pieces of his life over a thirty-year period.  “The Hand” is the first story in this upcoming group, which will culminate as a “novel-in-stories” a la Melissa Bank’s The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing.

    For a sneak peek at the “ups and downs,” written about in Months and Seasons, watch this YouTube video of an actor-read excerpt from the story “Whiskers”, introduced by Meeks.  His work has appeared in Rosebud and Clackamas Literary Review as well as other literary journals.  A previous collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea was published in 2005.  Learn more by visiting the author’s website or subscribing to his blog.  Climb aboard the roller coaster that is Months and Seasons; the ride will stay with you for a while!

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    There’s still time to join us in planning “the week ahead”, and to enter to win a Page-A-Day Book Lover’s Calendar.  Find the details here:

    A snapshot of what may, or may not, happen in my life this week:

    Monday – We were away this weekend, so much of my day will be spent recovering from that – laundry and grocery shopping!  We were down the Cape visiting with friends at their family’s beach “lodge” – thank you Hilary and Tony (et al!).  The original structure of the Lodge was built as a fishing shack in the 1700s, it has been extended and updated throughout the years and has quite a bit of character.  As soon as we pulled down the gravel driveway and saw the building I said, “It’s The Big House!”, which was met by my children eye-rolling “of course it’s a big house”.  No, it reminded me of my mental picture of The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt.

    TuesdayTuesdayThingers, in which the Boston Bibliophile poses a question, somehow related to the LibraryThing site.  I also hope to have my review for Christopher Meeks’ short fiction collection, Months and Seasons, ready to post. 

    Wednesday – I’ll post the next installment in my SOBs series, a photo and short blurb about R. Franklin Pyke Bookseller in Avalon, California, which was discovered by Lisa at Books on the Brain while on vacation recently.  We don’t have a lot of information about this bookstore; if you can add anything, feel free to Contact me or Comment on the post.  If there’s a special bookstore that you’d like to spotlight, please let me know!

    Thursday – Tonight Book Club Girl will interview Debra Dean, author of The Madonnas of Leningrad.  If you have a quesion or comment for the author, you can call in (or e-mail your question to Book Club Girl ahead of time). 

    Friday – Today’s the last day to enter the drawing for a copy of Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle.  The winner’s name will be posted on Saturday.

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    MizB at Should Be Reading asks what books have come into our lives this week.  Here’s my list:

     

     

     

    The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt.  I’ve already read this book (twice even!), obviously I really like it!  My neighborhood book group chose it for our September selection, and I was shocked to realize that I don’t own it.  I logged on to PaperBackSwap, made my selection, and the book arrived today. 

    The publisher’s synopsis:  Faced with the sale of the century-old family summer house on Cape Cod where he had spent forty-two summers, George Howe Colt returned for one last stay with his wife and children. This poignant tribute to the eleven-bedroom jumble of gables, bays, and dormers that watched over weddings, divorces, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays, breakdowns, and love affairs for five generations interweaves Colt’s final visit with memories of a lifetime of summers. Run-down yet romantic, the Big House stands not only as a cherished reminder of summer’s ephemeral pleasures but also as a powerful symbol of a vanishing way of life.

    I received an signed ARC of First Daughterby Eric Van Lustbader.  This looks like quite an engaging thriller!  I’m especially interested in reading it because I just read/reviewed Stone Creek by his wife, Victoria Lustbader.  Their writing styles and genres are very different; I wonder if I’ll see any stylistic links. 

    A blurb from the publisher: Sometimes the weakness we fear most can become our greatest strength . . .   Jack McClure has had a troubled life.  His dyslexia always made him feel like an outsider.  He escaped from an abusive home as a teenager and lived by his wits on the streets of Washington D.C.  It wasn’t until he realized that dyslexia gave him the ability to see the world in unique ways that he found success, using this new-found strength to become a top ATF agent.   When a terrible accident takes the life of his only daughter, Emma, and his marriage falls apart, Jack blames himself, numbing the pain by submerging himself in work.  Then he receives a call from his old friend Edward Carson.  Carson is just weeks from taking the reins as President of the United States when his daughter, Alli, is kidnapped.  Because Emma McClure was once Alli’s best friend, Carson turns to Jack, the one man he can trust to go to any lengths to find his daughter and bring her home safely.   The search for Alli leads Jack on a road toward reconciliation . . . and into the path of a dangerous and calculating man.  Someone whose actions are as cold as they are brilliant.  Whose power and reach are seemingly infinite.   Faith, redemption, and political intrigue play off one another as McClure uses his unique abilities to journey into the twisted mind of a stone cold genius who is constantly one step ahead of him.  Jack will soon discover that this man has affected his life and his country in more ways than he could ever imagine.

    Christopher Meeks and I connected via a blog post about Jhumpa Lahiri’s award-winning Unaccustomed Earth and the difficulties I’ve encountered discussing short stories in a group setting.  Christopher wrote a thoughtful guest post on the subject, and offered me a review copy of his latest short story collection, Months and Seasons.  I’m looking forward to reading it, being receptive to themes, as Christopher suggests.

    A sneak peek at what I may find: “Months and Seasons”is the follow-up story collection to Christopher Meeks’s award-winning “The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea.” With a combination of main characters from young to old and with drama and humor, the tales pursue such people as a supermodel who awakens after open-heart surgery, a famous playwright who faces a firestorm consuming the landscape, a reluctant man who attends a Halloween party as Dracula, and a New Yorker who thinks she’s a chicken.

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    Earlier I wrote a post about short stories and the challenges my book group has had when we’ve attempted to discuss them.  I was pleased to get a very insightful response from Christopher Meeks, a playwright, columnist, and published author of four children’s books, a novel, and two collections of short stories, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons.  Christopher discusses the difficulty of finding a willing audience for short stories (agents and reviewers may shy away from them; general readers tend to really enjoy them), and offers several great suggestions for how to approach a discussion about a collection.  I asked Christopher if I could list his essay as a Guest Post; here it is:

    I’m writing in response to Dawn’s questions about book clubs and short fiction collections.  Ironically, I found her blog as I researched Jhumpra Lahiri’s bestselling collection, Unaccustomed Earth. I wanted to know who was writing about that collection because it could be someone open to reading my own collection, Months and Seasons, published last month. 

     

    I’ve had much success with short stories, but it hasn’t been easy.  It’s not just book clubs that are resistant to short stories.  Every part of the publishing industry is.  Yet, thanks in part to Jhumpra Lahiri’s book most recently, the ice is melting.  If I may, I’ll offer insight from a writer’s point of view.

     

    My first inkling short story publication would be hard was in the late nineties.  I’d been a produced playwright, and I’d written short stories for years, often between plays.  A few magazines, such as The New Yorker and Harpers publish short stories, but I couldn’t start there.  I had no name. 

     

    Literary magazines made sense, but I soon learned that it’s more likely you’ll be struck from lightning than published in literary magazines.   When you consider the North Dakota Quarterly receives over 500 short stories a month and publishes maybe ten an issue for no payment to a circulation of 800, you can see the problem.  Few people publish short stories, you’re not paid, and few people read them.

     

    Still, I love the form.  I happen to teach English and creative writing, and I’ve found my students might not understand short stories at first, but they come to love them.  The joy they get in discussing, for instance, “Lust” by Susan Minot, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor, or “Carnal Knowledge” by T.C. Boyle is visible and rises as my students offer insight to each other.  I conduct class like a book club.  Every voice has weight. My students ask questions of each other.  Certain details bring meaning.  I encourage thinking.

     

    As for my publishing short fiction, lightning struck.  I managed to publish several short stories in literary magazines over a few years and had the brilliant idea of putting the stories into a collection.  I knew a literary agent and sent him the manuscript to see if he’d represent me.  He called.  “I love your stories,” he said.  “You’re a great writer.  You should write a novel.”

     

    I said I probably would someday, but could he send my collection out for possible publication?  He said no.  “There’s no money in short fiction.  Any advance you’d get would be small.  For the time it would take me to set it up, I’d get 15% of almost nothing.  I can’t do it.  Write a novel.” 

     

    This went back and forth with my suggestion that all he needs to do is put a cover letter on the collection, send it to a few places, and see what happens.  “Write a novel,” he said to end it.

     

    I’ll give this to the man: he got me to write a novel and when my first short story collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea was published in 2006, and the Los Angeles Times reviewed it and well, he called to congratulate me, even though he wasn’t my agent.

     

    The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea received over a dozen reviews, all positive, mostly in literary websites, but my coup was that Entertainment Weekly mentioned that it’s a must read, and sales rose.

     

    The challenge to find readers continues.  My second collection, Months and Seasons, had its publication party at the Beverly Hills Public Library last month as part of the library’s New Short Fiction series.  To build on that honor, I hired a publicist so that the book might be reviewed in publishing industry journals such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, places that bookstores and libraries read to select what books they order.

     

    My publicist called to say she’d just spoken with Booklist, a major journal for librarians.  “They said they rarely review short story collections—maybe two a year—and it has to be from a big-name author.”  I wasn’t big name. 

     

    If librarians don’t see the book reviewed, how can short story collections get in libraries?  If libraries don’t offer a lot of collections, then how do people consider short story collections?  If book reviewers don’t consider collections, then it’s not on the radar of ordinary readers.  Thus, it’s an extra challenge to get a short story collection seen.

     

    I’m not disheartened.  After all, Jhumpra Lahiri just won the Frank O’Connor Award and 35,000 Euros.  Her book has been on bestseller lists for months.  These days, people like short stories because they have little time for reading compared to past generations, and short stories are beautiful small units. 

     

    This brings me to how a book club should approach discussing a short story collection.  My notion is that short story collections as a whole should be thought of as concept rock albums.  That’s because it’s often the way collections are put together.  I fret like Bruce Springsteen over the order of the tales.  I work and rework the table of contents.  Some stories are lighter than others, and, as in a good album or concert, the reader’s emotions should be like California Screamin’, the roller coaster I went on recently went on with my nine-year-old daughter: ups and downs, and the loop is a surprise.

     

    Your club, in discussing a short story collection, should ask are there themes or concepts that are apparent throughout the stories?  Do the stories bring light to this confusing thing we call life—and how do the stories do that?

     

    Good writers allow the subconscious mind to lay imagery and ideas in their stories, and readers may find concrete meaning in things that slipped in.  I titled my first collection The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea because it was funny, playing with Hemingway’s title.  Yet reviewers found water imagery in a number of stories that played into theme.  I had to admit it was there, but it wasn’t conscious.

     

    With Months and Seasons, I was aware of wanting to write stories about time—narratives of different people at different ages.  One story has a seven-year-old girl who is afraid of the water.  Another story has a 78-year-old playwright afraid of a raging fire.

     

    What is each reader’s favorite story and why?  My favorite part in reading reviews of my books is discovering which story hit home the most.  Different reviewers have different favorites.  Only this morning did Google Alert notify me of this blogger: click here and you’ll see what Grady Harp, a top-ten Amazon reviewer, likes about this new book.  I don’t know the man, but his review shows me the challenges are all worth it.

     

    I happen to be serious about my fiction in that stories should entertain and open doors.  I sat in on a book club reading my work recently, and it was fun.  There were times things were spirited—someone didn’t like something while someone else thought it was brilliant.  You know book clubs.  It’s not about agreement; it’s about disagreement and trying to get others see your point of view. It’s about this crazy life.

     

    I love book clubs.

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