Tuesday, May 21, 2013

To Make a Story Short

Kevin Coolidge

There were no bookstores in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, when I was a kid. Sure there were places to borrow books. The Green Free library in town, the bookmobile that visited my elementary school, and the library at the middle school were great resources.

There were fewer places to buy books. I bought the Hardy Boys at the local five & dime, an occasional paperback at the grocery store, but the nearest real bookstore was an hour away, and it didn’t take long for me to go through my allowance when I visited.

Reading wasn’t a habit I could just shelve, and I found ways to feed it. My mom loved going to yard sales, and in the summer I would often go with her. People sold their books? People would often take less than what was marked, and if it interested me, I bought it.

One of my early loves is science fiction, and a staple of the genre is the short story. I was able to find short fiction by such authors as Ray Bradbury, Gordon R. Dickson, and Isaac Asimov. Science Fiction is incredibly diverse and hard to define, as is the short story.

This brief work of literature emerged from oral storytelling traditions and has morphed into an important and exciting literary form. What is a short story? Short stories have no set length. No set word count. It’s more than an anecdote, but it’s less than a novel.

The short story is less complex than a novel. It evokes a mood and does this by focusing on one incident, a single plot, a single setting, and a small number of characters. All covered in short period of time.

It may use many of the same literary techniques as a novel—such as plot, rising action, and climax. It may start in the middle of the action. It may not offer a practical lesson. It may have an abrupt ending. It may take you to a place you’ve never been.

Books broaden. Stories can show us things we’ve never seen. Limiting your reading defeats that. It limits us. I believe the short story matters, and so should you.

May has been declared National Short Story Month, much like April is National Poetry Month. I’m not sure who decides these things. I don’t remember voting, but I love a good short story.

Get your lunch to go, grab a bench, soak in some sun, and read a good anthology like Warriors edited by George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois. Martin is known for his fantasy, but it’s not a fantasy anthology, though it has some good fantasy in it.

Gardner Dozois has edited science fiction for decades, but Warriors is not a science fiction anthology, but it has some great science fiction. It also has some pieces I won’t label. I’m not even going to try. They are stories. Just stories…

Novel idea? Or, short on inspiration? Email me at from_my_shelf@yahoo.com and let me know. Miss a past column? Get inspired at http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com Hobo, the cat, tells his story in “Hobo Finds a Home” a book that is child-sized, but not short on story…

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Stop Pretending You Don't Know About Mental Illness

Kasey Cox

Read the Printed Word!


I saved this column, so I could post it in conjunction with other "Blogs for Mental Health", many of whom were to post all together on May 15.... then I missed May 15. I can only blame this a little bit on my own mental health issues: I do get more easily tired than "normal" (whatever that is) people my age who do not deal with mental health issues. I have limited energy, and a tendency to go into a certain sensory overload sooner than other people do. But, as I have learned over the years, we ALL have limits on our energy. We are, almost to a person, in this modern age ALL dealing with sensory overload. So, I'll just say, I got a little behind this week, and forgive myself for not posting it until a little window of space opened up for me at the end of the week. It's the dose of "so what?" that helps my mental health most of all.


I was thinking I’d write this week’s column on Antoine St. Exupery’s classic “children’s” book, The Little Prince, which celebrates its 70th year of being printed in English, as of April 6. I adore The Little Prince, and I have more than enough to say about this lovely collection of parables. I have also been considering, for some time, reviewing Sonya Sones’ young adult book, Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. I’ve hesitated to do the review of Sones’ book because it hits more than close to home and I don’t let myself go wandering into certain dark corners often. I maintain the level of health I currently enjoy because I keep myself focused on not the peaks or the valleys of my life, but on as happy a medium as I can.

And then came the national news headlines: Friday morning, April 5, 2013, Rick Warren’s youngest son, Matthew, took his own life at the age of 27. Rick Warren is one of the founding members of the “megachurch” movement in the United States, where churches seek to become more like a campus and an entire life-center for their congregants. Through his bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life, and through his church in Saddleback, CA, Pastor Rick Warren’s mission has been to translate the Gospel of the more traditional, evangelical church into a modern style that might reach wider audiences. In the first news headlines, church staff shared that Matthew’s suicide came after a lifetime struggle with mental illness, severe bouts of depression, mood instability, and suicidal thoughts. Matthew’s friends describe him as a man who was often effervescent, outgoing, and brilliant, but who was also regularly debilitated by excruciating emotional pain and dark holes of depression. Ten years ago, after another treatment attempt provided no relief, Matthew told his father that he just wished his earthly suffering was over. Reverend Warren, though infinitely saddened to lose his son now, is proud that Matthew was brave enough to hold on for another ten years. Warren explained that his son’s mental illness, despite all the best treatments and prayers that modern medicine and his faith could offer, was never completely under control.

The first time I was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit, I was nineteen. My younger siblings were seventeen and eleven, respectively. My family and I were able to pretend a lot longer and more frequently than author Sonya Sones and her family. The only symptoms we dealt with for a long time were the bouts of depression. When it became apparent over the years that my illness involved more than the occasional depressive episode, I still only stopped being too stubborn to interrupt my “normal” life so that I could actually properly deal with my illness when I got too sick to pretend otherwise. This was not the case for Sonya Sones, a story which she shares in Stop Pretending. When Sonya was thirteen and her sister was nineteen, Sonya’s sister had a full-fledged, break-with-reality, seemingly out-of-the-blue nervous breakdown. The family was shocked, devastated, and, for the six months that her sister was in the psychiatric hospital, nearly nonfunctional themselves. During most of this time, Sonya kept journals, but it was only many years later that she began to share these experiences from her early teen years with other writers.

In a Master Class with poet Myra Cohn Livingston, Sonya was encouraged to go deeper and to share more of the feelings, memories, and events from “what happened when [her] big sister went crazy.” What emerged was a collection of poems which speak clearly and profoundly of how families are affected when one member falls gravely or suddenly ill. The poems in Stop Pretending allow the reader to touch on painful, intense subjects without getting mired down completely. Many of Sones’ poems are short, packing a tremendous array of hope, despair, jealousy, anger, sadness, discomfort, and anxiety into less than 250 words per page. In doing so, Sones has given other teens, indeed other families, permission to speak more openly about the experience of mental illness.
When Sonya Sones’s fellow writers and her mentor first encouraged her to seek publication, Sonya wasn’t sure how exposed her sister would feel. She was afraid of upsetting her sister by sharing these feelings in their rawest form. Instead, Sonya’s sister told her she was pleased and proud that Sonya was taking this opportunity to help other people talk about mental illness. I, as the older sister in a similar story to Sonya’s, would re-iterate the same message. Discussions of mental illness need not be hidden in dark corners for shame, but instead shared in the light of validation and love, which may not always bring a cure, but can definitely bring healing.

Hobo & I want to remind Tioga County that there’s a new NAMI support group in the area. NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The weekly meeting for the Tioga Chapter is Wednesday nights at the First Presbyterian Church in Wellsboro, except the last Wednesday of each month, when the meeting is held at the St. James Apartments in Mansfield. FMI: contact 570-439-1417

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Kilt Dead in Maine

Read the Printed Word!


(Written, obviously, in the beginning of January 2013)

The first week in January, I finished reading one of the best novels I’ve read in the past six months. Sure, I’ve read a lot of books since last summer, and most of them have been enjoyable, even excellent reads. But I’ve been exclaiming about Emma Donoghue’s Room ever since I started it; even more so when I finished it.

There are, however, a couple of good reasons why I won’t be reviewing Room in this week’s column. The book club at the bookstore doesn’t meet until the evening of Tuesday, January 22nd, so I don’t want to tell everyone my opinions this far out. I don’t want to give spoilers or unduly influence other members’ experience of reading the book. Also, as I type this column on Sunday night, the 13th (why, no, editor, I don’t write my columns at the last minute! Whatever makes you think I’d procrastinate like that?), there is still a week and a half to tempt other folks to read Room and join us at this month’s meeting. I guarantee you’ll fly through the pages of this book: even if you are just reading this column on Thursday or Friday just before the book club meeting, I’m certain you can finish Room in a weekend. It is that compelling.

Nevertheless, it still being obvious how much I wavered in my decision, I finally asked my husband and bookstore business partner – the person best for me when bouncing around both personal and “professional” book reviews – “which should I do this week’s column on, Room by Emma Donoghue, or those Scottish mysteries by Kaitlyn Dunnett?” Knowing my enthusiastic response to both authors, and the possibilities for discussing each, Kevin didn’t hesitate. “The Dunnett mysteries,” he answered, “because they’re more fun. Besides, you can always do a review on Room later, after the book club meeting.”

And that is why, loyal readers, you’ll have to take a teaser on Room, and hear about how much I have enjoyed Kaitlyn Dunnett’s cozy mystery series about the little western Maine town of Moosetookalook and its charming cast of characters. At the ripe old age of twenty-seven, Liss MacCrimmon finds her career as a professional dancer cut short when she severely injures her knee. Though surgery guarantees she will walk normally again, Liss can never risk going back to dancing the high-impact Scottish folk dances of her troupe, Strathspey (think Riverdance, only the heritage of the Scots, not the Irish). Now instead of touring the U.S. as the lead dancer fifty weeks out of the year, Liss returns home to her small town in Maine, to continue to heal up and decide what comes next. In the meantime, she’ll work in her Aunt Margaret’s shop, the Scottish Emporium, purveyors of custom-order kilts, beautiful tartan fabrics, shortbread, canned haggis, Celtic jewelry, books on Scotland, and many niche gifts. Though Tandy’s Music Shop takes care of major musical instruments, including the bagpipes, the Scottish Emporium does have practice chanters, pennywhistles, and drumsticks. They even sell the sgian dubh, the small, traditional “black dagger” of the Scots.

While the sgian dubh is not the murder weapon used in the first book, Kilt Dead, it does make a gruesome appearance in The Corpse Wore Tartan, the fourth book in the series, when the Scottish Heritage Appreciation Society hosts their annual Burns Night Dinner at the Spruces, a resort overlooking Moosetookalook. Liss’s boyfriend, Dan Ruskin, and his family, have slaved to re-open the old-fashioned resort, hoping to bring more tourism to their area. Having the Robert Burns Dinner scheduled there over a winter weekend is a great foray into the kind of business they hope to attract, especially since the dinner is an annual event. But the staff at the Spruces notices right away that Scottish Heritage Appreciation Society has a shared history beyond Scottish ancestry, and, before you know it, a fresh body is found in a storage room, throat apparently slit with his own sgian dubh. In true Agatha Christie style, a huge snowstorm blows in, trapping all the guests at the hotel for several days, without electricity and with a murderer in their midst.

It’s no surprise that Liss is often getting herself in the midst of “work better left to professional detectives, Ms. MacCrimmon,” since she adores murder mysteries, shying away from the forensic stories, but loving the amateur sleuths. Liss, her friend Angie (who runs the local bookstore), and all the small business owners of Moosetookalook are thrilled when the Spruces hosts a mystery writers’ conference in Scotched. Sadly, a famous writer falls to her death at the local lovers’ leap, and the circumstances are too strange not to ask questions.

In many ways a typical “cozy” mystery series, but with plenty of Maine local color and a fresh idea with the addition of Scottish-American heritage theme, Liss MacCrimmon and the gang are a welcome new act in the crowded field of fun, light mysteries.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Hobo Handbook

Kevin Coolidge

Driving the same route to work. Parking in the same spot. Eating at the same places. The daily grind has finally ground me down. If I have to listen to my boss yak about his weekend one more time, I’m going to stab myself in the eye just to see if he’ll shut up, and ask why I’m not answering the phone.

Taking stock of my life, I wonder how I became so complacent. Why did I ever buy into the bills, the stupid landlord, alarm clocks, parking tickets, and the damn IRS? There has to be something better out there.

The open road calls. I hear its sweet, seductive whisper as I swallow the last of my espresso. Ahhh, caffeine is civilization. Beer may have got it brewing, but we can thank dancing goats for getting us past the Bronze Age*. It’s so obvious. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. I’ll quit my job. Cut up my credit cards, and become a hobo. I see the future. I can feel the rush of fresh air against my face as I gaze at the scenery rushing by the open door, but as the air conditioning clicks off, I find I have some questions. Where do I begin???

You might think the lifestyle of crossing a still-wild frontier on the rails is dead, but there is a niche for the twenty first-century hobo. Modern-days tramps are more likely to find a temporary job on Craiglist while sipping a latte paid with a debit card than brewing a pot of cowboy coffee over a small campfire, and might catch a Greyhound instead of a freight train**. Enter The Hobo Handbook: A Field Guide to Living by Your Own Rules written by Josh Mack. This book is a guide for taking your life on the road. Learn how to set up camp, find some work, catch some food, grab some transport, and when the time comes, how to sleep in a ditch.

Where did the original “hobos” come from? The first American hobo came with the end of the Civil War. Two Union soldiers found themselves far from home, and decided hopping a passing freight train was the fastest way back. They beat their friends home and soon other soldiers followed. President Lincoln had authorized the first transcontinental railroad, and as the tracks surged West, men followed—riding the rails while finding work building, repairing, and maintaining them. The railroads were initially happy to provide transport.

On the road again, you might decide that you’ve found your true calling, or you may be saying, “Well, that was a terrible idea. My job may suck, but I get to go home at 5pm, and a little rent once a month doesn’t sound so bad, I guess,” and return to your regularly scheduled life. Either way, the road called, and you answered…

*It is said that an Ethiopian goat herder discovered coffee while looking for his goats. Goats ate the berries, and the coffee break was invented.

**Hopping a freight train is illegal, but even worse, it’s incredibly dangerous. It’s estimated that from 1929 to 1939 more than 24,000 people were killed. Maybe you should take the bus.

Hobo? Tramp? Or just bumming around? Email me a from_my_shelf@yahoo.com and let me know. Miss a past column? Next time you have public access just go to http://frommyshelf.blogspot .com and read your fill. Hobo, the cat used to be a tramp, but now he’s just a bookstore bum. It’s a nice gig if you can get it. Stop by and see for yourself…