Tag: book clubs

Valerie Trueblood’s Criminals

May 17th, 2017 — 11:41am

I love to read. But the older I get the more critical I am of words on the page, and the more willing I am to put a book down unfinished, in a way that my younger self, that (pre-childrearing) self, who thought she had endless time ahead, would never have dared do. Now I find myself impatient with other people’s words unless, well, the writing is amazing. Occasionally I come across a book that clutches me by the core and demands that not only must I read from beginning to end TWICE, but I must tell every other person who loves words to read it too. And the book that most recently possessed me so thoroughly was Valerie Trueblood’s Criminals.

No one writes like Trueblood. Her books (I have read her three story collections, as well as her novel) are not ‘easy’ reads. The tales are intense, complicated, sprawling, multi-layered. There are mentions of Frost and Whitman. There are times when I begin a story and feel as if I’m blinking at disparate puzzle pieces, but slowly, expertly, Trueblood gently guides those pieces together and the image/epiphany that snaps together is worth every ounce of close reading I had to do get there.

My favorite story in Criminals is “Skylab.” In thirty pages, Trueblood manages to do everything I tried to do in my three hundred page novel, The Confusion of Languages. It’s the story of Amy, a newlywed nurse who falls in love with a much older, married doctor. The two flee America together, leaving damaged families behind, and land in Malaysia, where everything, from stray dogs to bumble bees to random cans of hairspray, are not what they seem. Amy, suddenly unmoored from a capable life that gave her meaning, feels an unfathomable, Shakespearean guilt, and their love, which had seemed so vital and epic in the hospital where they had met and hatched their escape, is suddenly no match for the misery the affair has set into motion. And all along a satellite, the doomed Skylab, careens off course just as surely as Amy does, the trajectory marred and flawed, now dangerously flailing, falling, and the best possible outcome is that no one will be killed by its plummet.

Criminals is full of stories about unexpected passions, of people trying to do the right thing and failing again and again, of heart break and insecurity, of flaws and attempts at redemption. In other words, it’s about every person you’ve ever known. When I read Valerie Trueblood, I want to write better, wiser, more resonate fiction. And in some strange way but beautiful way, when I read Valerie Trueblood, I also want to be a better, wiser, more resonate human being.

In typical Siobhan-smitten fashion, I chose Valerie Trueblood’s Criminals for our most recent embassy book club, hosted at my home (I didn’t think to take the photo above until most of the book club had already left, darn it!). The night was fantastic, my husband, KC, who’s a sharp reader, said it was the best book club discussion we’d ever had. It also gave us a great opportunity to email a few questions to Trueblood, who was so lovely to provide these indepth replies:

1. Would you mind giving us a little biographical information? Did you ever live abroad, especially in a Muslim majority country, similar to Amy’s time in Malaysia in Skylab? And the details in Astride are so amazingly specific (the typewriter tape!), did you intern at the Pentagon in the sixties? If so, how did those experiences inform your stories, and if not, how did you research and develop such settings and details?

My father grew up in a farm family, but became a geographer with an Asian specialty (Burma) and taught for several years at the University of Rangoon. There he met my mother, a Yorkshire missionary’s daughter who was teaching zoology. She was known thereabouts for her beauty and their story was the first romance I heard and loved. They left Burma when WWII began, and he went to work for Army intelligence in D.C., commuting fifty miles from our rural home in Virginia. I was one of their four children, and had the long happy childhood people say does not produce writers.

I can honestly say I always wanted to write stories. I didn’t even want to; I was more or less at the mercy of the scenes populating my mind, and hijacking it in grade school once I got there. I would sneak off to tell them or act them out aloud when I thought I was alone—a family joke, as it wasn’t easy to be alone in a family that size. We had no TV (my English mother thought it was an American notion and would go away), but stories were everywhere in that part of the South, in all the talk in stores, in the sermons, coming over the P.A. system in high school, in visits from the doctor and the milkman, the vet and the occasional drifter coming down the B&O railroad tracks needing food. Everybody had stories. And there was the glorious radio with its serials and soaps—X minus 1, Helen Trent, Sergeant Preston, The Shadow.

Do I write anything resembling these things? No. But I do hear the voices of Virginia always, and I remember the stories, the gentle ones told to instruct us but more particularly those of disaster—barns afire, ordeals of weather & crops, rogue animals who jumped gates or trampled their owners, murders, revenges taken, children sledding into cars. I’m sure they deepened my interest in how people cope with what happens rather than how they cause what happens.

I attended the county high school with a superb Latin teacher, Mrs. Lillian Bridges, who made me love the Aeneid and go off to college planning to major in Classics. At Brown I fell under the spell of the avant-garde novelist John Hawkes. Writing classes were a rarity then, and his was an ordeal by fire for the provincial I was. Why he encouraged me I don’t know. Then John Berryman had a year there as visiting professor, and his blazing mind was a guide for my own stumbles into language.

I did intern in the Pentagon; I did live with my husband in Malaysia when he taught at the Universiti Malaya. My circumstances weren’t those of the characters in my stories, and never have been, although no one can write fiction scrubbed of what’s been seen, known, experienced and felt in her/his own life.

2. There is a feeling of Hemingway in your stories – the prose and especially the dialogue is very lean and makes the reader work. Do you have a deliberate process that you use to cut and trim your stories or do you write the stories as they generally appear on the page?

I’m chuckling at the mention of Hemingway, though the Nick Adams stories meant a lot to me, and the novels were what we read in American lit classes back then along with Fitzgerald and the newcomer Flannery O’Connor. The leanness in my stories is probably due to cutting rather than to luck with a draft or not having drafts at all. I have them and they go on changing for years. That can be good or bad!

I do love dialogue, what people really say, and I hurry to get it written down when I hear it. The country voice in particular is music to me, from any region of the U.S., and it will well up in my own speech I’m told. Like many writers I’m an awful eavesdropper. I love the things people say in cafes and gas stations and at my son’s gigs in dive bars, but also what they say—we say—when we are at the extremes of emotion in our yards and kitchens and bedrooms, or when we’re hopeless and trying to find a truthful answer or an extenuating lie.

3. Most of these stories seem to be from the point of view of women. Not to say that they paint men in a bad light, since it’s the women who often stir up the trouble, but we have less insight into the male mind. Did you deliberately try to write stories from the female point of view?
You’re right that I more often write in the voice of or from the perspective of a female character, but I do have quite a number of stories (not all yet published) from the point of view of a male, and I find that no matter what the difficulties are, my female characters are usually very sympathetic to the male. I think the human predicament is just that, and even as a feminist I would not want to weigh the sufferings of one sex against those of the other. In CRIMINALS, the stories “His Rank,” “You Would Be Good” and “The War Poem” take place in the sore hearts of men.

In every other story in that book (I think, I hope) the problems of the males, including the young boy as well as the bodyguard in “Sleepover,” are close to the center of the story and bring out a fierce, if frustrated, tenderness in the female protagonist. In “Astride,” the Ukrainian Orlenko isn’t just a foil for the maturing process of two American girls, but the source and victim of the story’s action. In “Skylab” the young woman endures and externalizes all the pain of her husband’s acts and choices as well as her own. But that’s just how I see it; I’m sure there are other interpretations, and I’d love to hear them. It will be enlightening and helpful to me to hear how readers react to this question and to these characters!

Cork International Short Story Festival, 2011. Patrick Cotter, poet & festival organizer, Valerie Trueblood, and me, clearly thrilled to meet one of America's finest short story writers

(For more on Cork International Short Story festival, see my blog from September 2011: http://siobhanfallon.com/blog/?m=201109)

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The Kindness of Strangers

August 16th, 2012 — 2:37pm

During interviews or book club discussions, I’m often asked how civilians can help our military. So I thought I’d take up a little cyberspace to recognize some of the exceptional ways people have gone above and beyond in support of our troops.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog about a trip to Walter Reed. Many readers responded and asked for more information about the clothing and book drives that have been taking place there, outfitting our young Vets with everything from ties and suits for upcoming interviews, as well as providing children’s clothes and books for the families that live on the hospital grounds while their wounded Soldiers and Marines attend difficult rehabilitation.

Soon after, I was asked to join a You Know When the Men Are Gone book discussion via speaker phone with the Philadelphia law firm Woodcock Washburn LLP, led by Barbara Felicetti, the firm’s librarian. While preparing for our discussion, Barbara happened to read the original blog about my Hooks Books event at Walter Reed, and was taken with the plight of our military there, many of whom are missing limbs or suffering from brain injuries. She mentioned that her firm often sponsored local charities and that they might like to send “some things.”

Janis Calvo and some WW Book Club members with boxed donations (clockwise from left): Barbara Felicetti, Marie Ware, Lori Roman, Faith Poore, Kelly Freels, Wendy Troester, Anissa Haynes

Well, the kind folk at Woodcock Washburn outdid themselves and “some things” became a deluge of generosity. Janis Calvo (who first recommended You Know When the Men are Gone to the Woodcock Washburn book club, and also knitted 20 pairs of booties to send to Walter Reed!!! I love you Janis!) spent countless lunch hours alongside fellow employee Betty Rackus, organizing donated goods and packing everything up. The facilities manager, Bill Jordan (himself ex-military), helped with staging space and getting the materials shipped to Walter Reed.

Here is an abbreviated list of the things they shipped:
16 boxes of books (including 3 boxes of children’s books)
More than 120 neckties (sent early for a job fair being held on Walter Reed, see flyer below)
22 boxes of clothing (supposedly enough to clothe Rhode Island :) )
And extras: handmade hair bows; fancy fabric back packs; shoes; women’s clothing and coats; men’s pants and shirts; a Bill Blass trench coat; new-bought socks and ties, 4 bags of neatly folded and labeled children’s clothing – with little shoes!

The ties were sent out first in anticipation of the upcoming job fair. Here is an excerpt from an email from Cindy Dwyer, the wonderful woman who organizes these drives:

“We had our “interview clothing” distribution yesterday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The guys came out of the woodwork! We advertized an hour-long visit but were there for over 2 hours as guys kept coming! I did have one lady with the great responsibility of matching ties (with suits). She had them all rolled up just like Nordstrom’s.

When the guys left they were looking good thanks in part to your efforts! Please pass on my sincere thanks! Our young veterans have nearly double the unemployment rate of others. We wish them well at the job fair!”

Woodcock Washburn managed all of this, as well as sending 10 boxes of books and a very generous monetary donation to Operation Homefront in PA, NJ, and Delaware.

I will never crack a lawyer joke again.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been moved to tears by book groups who decided to make packages for our troops. Please know that our soldiers and their families are equally amazed and grateful for these acts of generosity.

A lovely Pasadena book club sending packages to deployed soldiers

Some of my husband’s favorite deployment stories are those that center around the random boxes of gifts that rolled in on a Humvee—enough books from Hilton Head South Carolina (thank you Beth Evans!) to help start a University Library in the Maysan Province of Iraq, 50 care packages that included feather pillows from a country club in North Carolina (thank you Lynne Sneed and Ann Goldman!) for soldiers who had been resting their weary heads on rolled up t-shirts night after night, and countless other exemplary acts during his three deployments. Like our wounded in Walter Reed, your generosity, from boxed-up hand-wipes and Twizzlers to Crayola-ed cards from First Graders, lets our soldiers know that they are not forgotten.

Soldiers in Iraq opening up Christmas care packages.

More gifts from home.

Donated beanie babies handed out at girls' school, Iraq.

Please remember all of our troops currently fighting in Afghanistan– I bet quite a few of them would love to hear from folks at home.

More info about the Walter Reed job fair and how your company can help our Vets:
Walter reed job fair

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