SACO – Many of my colleagues write stories that contain lists about everything from the best beer in the state, to the top 10 places to buy a donut in and around Portland. Come to think of it, I probably read that last article more than once.
Anyway, this year has been remarkable for me in so many ways. My family grew and prospered in ways that will forever make me smile and warm my soul.
At an age when teachers are often wondering about their retirement plans, my wife and I earned master’s degrees. While hers was in education, mine, almost selfishly, was in journalism and writing. I honestly can say that I loved every minute of my time in the classroom, and not surprisingly, many of the ideas and conversations I had with professors and students made their way into my high school classroom.
But back to the list – as my students often remind me – now is not the time to wander.
The following books are but a handful of the stories I’ve read this year and for a variety of reasons this eclectic mix of prose made an impression on me. Some of the authors will forever be remembered for their style and the lessons they gave me. Others, simply because the writers included know how to capture the essence of storytelling, something I have long appreciated.
Whether you agree or disagree with my choices, I hope you give them a try. I don’t think you’ll be sorry. I do think you’ll be better off for the effort (well that sounded just like the teacher in me).
Books – In the order of the appearance in the photograph.
John Irving – Avenue of Mysteries – As I sometimes say, “I’ve been a fan of his since The World According to Garp.” He’s a bit crazy, in love with bears, and a fantastic storyteller. For me, his books have often made me laugh and cringe at the nearly the same time. I bought this novel with the hope that penchant for tall tales would continue. It did.
Margaret Atwood – Oryx and Crake – OK, I freely admit I think she’s phenomenal. I had the chance to meet her in Cambridge last year and listen to her speak about the craft of writing and what it has meant to her. She’s funny, intelligent, and concerned about the world at large. Beyond that, the stories she tells are often rooted in a belief that we can make a difference. She has.
Erik Larson – Dead Wake – Did I mention that I earned a master’s degree in journalism this past year. I like and appreciate narrative nonfiction, especially from those who are gifted and write well. Erik Larson is one of those rare writers who know how to weave the elements of fiction (character, plot, setting, etc.) into the fact of the story. He is a great writer and this is a great book.
John Connolly – Night Music (Nocturnes Volume 2) – He’s Irish and his book is filled with spooky short stories – enough said. There’s something about the way those from the small green jewel in the North Atlantic capture my attention. It might be the Guinness, but I think there’s more there. I have become of huge fan of short stories and those who are masters of this form. He has certainly helped me better understand its impact.
David Arenstam – Running Through Snow Showers – Yes, this is my story, and it’s on the list for one simple reason. It’s the first story I have ever had the courage to submit to a publisher or editor, and lo and behold, they wanted to print it. I hope you like it.
Richard Ford – Canada – He’s a fellow Mainer and a master of place and time. I really liked this book and hope to meet him someday.
Lily King – Euphoria – When I first heard of Lily King I learned that she was a teacher and writer from Maine. That sounded just like someone else I knew. I was immediately curious. Her writing is literary in style but filled with characters that will leave you thinking. At least, that’s what happened to me. I carried her book with me, mentally and physically, for quite a while, and I hope to hear her speak in the spring. This is a beautifully written novel.
Kurt Vonnegut – Welcome to the Monkey House – Ok, I’d read this before, but when I became crazy about short stories, I remembered Vonnegut and his rule number 4: “Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal information about a character or advance the action.” I couldn’t ask for better advice. These are great stories and a wonderful example of this particular art form.
Alice Munro – Dear Life – Yes, I know – more short stories. Munro has a gift for making the ordinary and the mundane seem anything but pedestrian. She weaves character, theme, and setting in such a way that it hardly looks as if it were any effort at all. Smooth. Beyond that, she works, works, works. Every four years an anthology or collection of her stories was published. Writers, write and there is little doubt that she is one of the most talented and prolific.
Mary Norris – Between You & Me – I loved this book and the no-nonsense way in which this former, celebrated copy editor for the New Yorker explains the intricacies of grammar and editing. Watch her videos on YouTube and buy this book. Your writing will improve and along the way, you’ll hear more than a few interesting stories.
Matthew Pearl – The Dante Club – Perhaps not as well-known as the other authors on this list, but he writes about a place that is near and dear to me, Boston. Not only does this novel take place in and around the streets of Cambridge and Boston, but it takes place just after the end of the Civil War. I do like historical fiction and certainly fiction that deals with the varied and complicated lives of those who lived in the Bay State. This historical mystery will have you reading late into the night.
Margaret Atwood – Stone Mattress – Yes, one last small collection of short stories. I admit I have used the title story in my high school classroom and it never fails to elicit complicated responses from the students. They like the story and certainly have a sense of empathy for Verna and her turbulent life. I don’t think any of the stories here will disappoint you.
I hope this helps and have a happy New Year. Keep reading. [Tweet “Share this story …”]