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  • Writer's picturekmbrownfiel5

The benefit of brevity

If we ignore the state of Texas and their motto that bigger is best, it seems that we, as a society, are placing more value in shorter, smaller, and quicker. Yes, movies are still popular, but let’s take a moment to calculate how much more time young (and, let’s be honest, old) people spend watching reels, Tik Toks, YouTube videos, and whatever those short video clips are called on Facebook. If Twitter has an equivalent, I wouldn’t know, but they have their own brand of brevity in their short text limitations. Online book influencers have mastered the art of listening to audiobooks at a modest 2x the speed or a mind melting 3x the speed. I tip my hat to those folks with such sharp listening skills as I can’t nudge the speed past 1.5x. I think this trick is also being used by students as they zip through recorded lectures. We want information, and we want it now. We Google answers. If that will take too long, we ask Siri. If that will take too long, we know she’s listening anyway and will litter our Facebook ads with products that creepily fit our conversations. Anyways, all this is to say that we live in an age of speed and efficiency and constant information. Waiting is retro. Unless it’s waiting for furniture because that’s a good 3 months. But I digress.

When it comes to short stories, novellas, and the like, it seems that the category is becoming increasingly popular. Prior to two years ago, I was not actively seeking out short story collections. I love diving into stories and watching characters grow and develop and change and face obstacles and resolve their challenges, etc, etc, etc. All of these things can happen in a well-crafted short story collection or novella. Short story collections force the writer to distill the essence of their story into its most pure form. It's a flirtation with poetry, essentially. Short story collections also have the advantage of being able to play with themes over the course of multiple interconnected stories. Worlds can be created, links can be woven, and braids can be threaded. You are not limited to burdening one character or one plot with your central message, and you provide your reader with multiple avenues for connection. Take My Monticello, for instance. Jocelyn Nicole Johnson's emotionally nuanced short stories and novella are able to explore broad and specific ideas of injustice while also connecting each character's need for a place of safety and welcome and support. Her short story, "Control Negro," literally made me drop my jaw in shock while I was listening to the audiobook (thanks to on my commute. I am still talking about the short story a year later and how it thoroughly broke my heart. I didn't expect to feel such frustration (or perhaps I should classify it as anger) at a character in such a short period of time. The titular novella left me craving more of her propulsive and utterly unique writing, and it felt like the perfect formula for a limited television series. Seriously, Netflix, let's get moving on this! However, some of the other short stories have faded from my memory. And that, I believe, is the greatest weakness that short story collections can have. They are as good as their strongest story and as bad as their weakest. How many stories stand out for fond memories and how many fade away due to being "good but not great?" Novellas face a similar challenge. They do not have 300+ pages to develop character arcs and side quests and inessential fluffy scenes. They have the ability to take creative risks, but they have a much tighter window. They can, of course, take creative liberties with point of view and timelines and the narration style. Importantly for me, they give the satisfaction of completing a full story, a full plot, a full cycle of characterization in the course of a couple of hours. I purposely am beginning my AP Language and Composition class with John Steinbeck's novella, Of Mice and Men. The slim text is packed full of literary devices and allusions. The short nature of the book allows my students to have the time to dive more deeply into the nuances of the story and to more easily make connections across the course of the text. They will be tracking Lennie's behavior over the course of the story to determine what sentence he would receive in a modern day court for his role in the death of Curley's wife. The students will have the opportunity to argue for homicide, manslaughter, or the insanity defense based on various legal documents that I provide for them and Lennie's actions, thoughts, and intentions. This is an engaging way for me to introduce the class to synthesis essay writing and to kick off our legal theme for the year.

What I read this week:

Under One Roof by Ali Hazelwood

Hazelwood's signature is crafting slightly awkward female scientists with big dreams for their careers, supportive friends, and the hots for tall, broad, intelligent, and grumpy on the outside but a total knight in shining armor on the inside men that they are convinced don't love them back or feel that they can't be with. The first installment in her three part novella series is a fluffy enemies to lovers story told entirely through flashbacks marked in the months leading up to the point of our characters (finally!) romantically connecting. While I longed for a longer epilogue that dives more deeply into our happily ever after moment, I loved the slow unfurling of the pair's friendship. I loved that they bonded over watching The Bachelorette together and that they pushed each other to be better roommates and friends for each other. Mara was delightfully relatable in many parts of the novella, however, her inability to flexibly view her former enemy and to understand his longing for her grew frustrating at times. Miscommunication and lack of communication are not my favorite tropes, but I will reread their budding friendship scenes and their romantically charged evening over and over again. Mara provides us with an excellent reminder that people are often not who we think they are, and it's worth asking questions and having deeper conversations before we cast our judgements. Side note: I will absolutely melt every time I see the tenderness of her male leads. Putting a blanket over her while she's sleeping....cuddles when the house is too cold...the biggest hug when she earns a stellar promotion at work even though he's in the middle of a work call...these are a few of my favorite things.

Below Zero by Ali Hazelwood

I don't want to admit how quickly I listened to this audiobook and how sad I am that I'm finished with this trilogy. On the bright side, she has new material releasing this week! My best friend and I are thrilled! Below Zero made my heart ache for the misunderstanding and rigidity and emotional distance/fear that resulted in years of pointlessly being apart. Hannah has spent years being her own hero. She dug herself out of the pit of teenage poor decisions and became a PhD student and NASA employee. All by herself. A fortress of one. But she meets Ian. And he's funny. And smart. And kind. And maybe (no, definitely) there is something there. Hannah says that she doesn't date, and I want to scream. Maybe I screamed. There was at the very least a groan. Years go by and Hannah is trapped in a deadly situation, and Ian is the only person able and willing to rescue her. Hannah is no damsel in distress, but Ian is certainly a knight in shining armor. Hazelwood does it again with making the most dreamy male romantic interests, but I have to rank this one as my least favorite of a strong trilogy. This ranking can mostly be attributed to me not loving Hannah's self-sabotage (another trope I don't love) and missing more scenes of our two leads working together as partners.

How We Disappear by Tara Lynn Masih

As I mentioned in my last blog, Tara has been a huge supporter of mine throughout my short teaching career. She's virtually visited my classroom to discuss her award winning historical fiction book, My Real Name is Hanna, and she volunteered to judge our first school literary competition and offer free mentorship to the winning student. From our conversations and her work, it is clear that she is a keen researcher who is able to fully immerse her reader in whatever time and place and person that she chooses. Her latest collection of short stories and a novella showcased her best writing to date and was unafraid of exploring loss in a wide variety of forms. Whether it was the loss of parents, a sister, a home, or innocence, Tara probed until she found the emotional core, the most vital of memories, and the most poignant of moments. It is not all tragedy. But it is all life. Her works ranged from a lone man struggling to survive in the Tundra and learning that he is, in fact, not as lonely as he thought to a young woman discovering her psychic powers after enduring an unthinkable loss to a condensed and utterly fascinating examination of Agatha Christie’s life to a lonely man’s time in an old West town haunted by a ghost. The novella is by and large my favorite piece in this strong collection, and there are no components that feel incorrectly placed or obviously weaker than their companions. There is a journey through time and a journey around the world and a journey into individual memories. The novella takes us to rural Long Island. A chicken farm to be precise. Two young girls are growing up in a simpler time, but the unspeakable irreparably changes their world forever. I love the comforting scenes of capturing bugs and playing in the mud that seem to define our idealized view of rural life and their juxtaposition with the messy and ugly side of grief. The story feels grounded on Long Island but also vaguely reminiscent of so many small towns not so very long ago. That’s the beauty of these stories, I believe. They are specific in telling a story for one individual, but they can speak to the experiences of others. That is what good literature does: it makes the vague and undefined feel universal and tangible. We can see loneliness. We can see resiliency. We can see fear. We can see strength. Tara’s writing comes to life with vividness without being flowery, and her stories are deep without being too heavy. She’s a Goldilocks author. Her writing story after story seems to be just right. Thank you again for an advanced release copy of your work, and I can’t wait to read what you create next. You’ve definitely found a life long reader and fan in me.

What I’m reading now:

Carrie Soto is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid made me incredibly happy when I saw Reid’s newest release available for influencers. Daisy Jones & The Six is one of my favorite books of all time, and I am on a mission to read as many of her novels as I can. While this hasn’t beaten Daisy Jones for me yet, it’s already surpassed The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Malibu Rising. To keep it brief, the book follows Soto’s rise to fame as the greatest tennis player of all time. When her record is threatened, she comes out of retirement to fight for what she’s given her life to. As a tennis coach, this book is obviously well researched, and I’m looking forward to recommending it to my players.

FDR’s Splendid Deception by Hugh Gregory Gallagher

I found this inscribed second edition while browsing a bookstore in Charlottesville, and while I’m not far into it yet, it’s one of the most fascinating nonfiction books I’ve read in a while. Gallagher examines FDR’s life through a disability lens to explain and speculate how polio impacted his life and relationships and to explain how he managed to hide his disability from the world.

Instead of the “what I’m loving” section, I’ll give you a few sneak peeks of what’s coming!

  1. I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Wallace. We went to college together, and he’s made a name for himself online as a reviewer and moderator of alternate history forums. He’s also published a short story in an anthology that raises funds for the Ukraine.

  2. I recently travelled to Richmond and Charlottesville, and I’m excited to share my travel guide.

  3. I begin teaching on Friday and will be sharing a few things that work well in my classroom or that I’m excited to try this year.

That’s all for now! Thanks for reading!

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