Octopus Nest: an all-time favorite short story

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“The Octopus Nest” by Sophie Hannah, from her collection of short stories entitled “The Fantastic Book of Everyone’s Secrets,” is one of my all-time favorite shorts. I won’t spoil anything as you should go into this completely cold, save the opening paragraph. Tell me this doesn’t pull you right in:

It was the night I had hoped never to see: the front door wide open, Becky, our sitter, leaning out into the darkness as if straining to break free of the doorway’s bright rectangle, her eyes wide with urgency. When she saw our car, she ran out into the drive, then stopped suddenly, arms at her sides, looking at the pavement. Wondering what she would say to us, how she would say it.

OK, wow. Grab it.

My Bookshop storefront is live

Want to buy books online and support indie booksellers at the same time? What if you could do that, support this site AND thumb your nose at that space-faring billionaire all at once? I have good news for you, dear reader. You can.

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You-know-who is the Empire. We are the Rebel Alliance.

I’ll continually add books that I’ve read, reviewed, and enjoyed. Buy a copy for yourself, your book-loving friends, or even use my storefront as a jumping-off point whenever you go shopping for a great read (just bookmark this right here).

I’ll keep reading, reviewing, and recommending great books. You keep adding to your library, and together we’ll help keep those great indie shops afloat. Check it out right here. And may the Force be with you.

Childhood is a window that closes at 18

Leaving for college tomorrow.

Childhood is a window that closes at 18. At this moment I feel Grace’s window has met the sash and the lock has been flipped. The girl whose diaper I changed is gone. The kid with whom I read Harry Potter, made dumb jokes, drove to ballet lessons and Girl Scout meetings, went sledding and experienced so many other things now exists only in photos.

I love who she has become, but I’ll always miss who she was.

Watercolor: loose natural landscape

I’ve been following along with several watercolor tutorials on Domestika and they’re very, very good. So far I’ve done one on creating a travel journal with artist Alicia Aradilla. That course’s final project kicked my butt but I’m going to try it again.

I also completed two courses with artist Daniel “Pito” Campos whose loose style I really like. Specifically, Natural Landscapes in Watercolor and Urban Landscapes in Watercolor. Below is my progress on the former’s final project.

Pito paints in layers, or “stains” as he calls them, and it’s fun to see a painting go from a very rough pencil sketch to the “mess” that always is the first layer to the gradual emergence of details in subsequent layers. I’ve picked up many techniques and tips I’ll use on future projects. Someday I’ll be brave enough to paint a photo of my own without guidance, but I’m not there yet.

My jar of beeswax

As a first-year beekeeper I get to enjoy the adventure of keeping honey bees, of learning about them, caring for them, and seeing their day-to-day lives up close. Meanwhile are two things I don’t get, and they’re kinda biggies.

Honey and beeswax.

Back in May I started out with five frames of bees, which house 10,000 individuals. Today, that number has grown to about 15 frames, or about 30,000 bees.* You might assume that 30K bees can produce a lot of honey and wax, and you’re right. But since this colony is still establishing itself, they’re going to need all of it to get through the winter. In other words, no excess for me.

I can, however, take “burr comb.” In fact, I should.

Bees store pollen, nectar, honey, eggs and larvae in honeycomb, which they build with beeswax. A new colony like mine spends a lot of time and effort building honeycomb from scratch, and they need every bit to support their growing numbers (in the peak of summer, the queen can lay up to 1,000 eggs per day). They’re meant to build the comb on the frames, which you can think of like hanging file folders in a filing cabinet. Every now and then, however, they get a little overly ambitions and build comb on *top* of the file folder, or frame, and that’s called burr comb.

I don’t want them to do that for a few reasons. It can make the hive difficult to inspect, become a real mess and prevent me from closing up the hive properly. So I always scrape it off and put it into my jar, which you see here.

Soon I’ll melt this down, get the impurities out, make sure it’s good and clean and then let it solidify into natural beeswax, which I can then use to make candles, lip balm, all sorts of interesting things. I hope to collect some more before the season ends, and of course I’ll show you what I make and how I make it. Wish me luck!

*Do you know what honey bees are really good at? Making more bees.

Murder on campus: For Your Own Good, my next book

Note: this post contains Amazon Affiliate links

Having just finished All’s Well by Mona Awad (my review here) and A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman (my review here), my next read is For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing.

Published in July of 2021 this book has been popping up on YouTube and elsewhere for a while now. So when I saw it on the “featured” table in my local bookstore, I snatched it up. From the jacket:

Teddy Crutcher has won Teacher of the Year at the prestigious Belmont Academy, home to the best and brightest.

He says his wife couldn’t be more proud—though no one has seen her in a while.

Teddy really can’t be bothered with a few mysterious deaths on campus that’re looking more and more like murder or the student digging a little too deep into Teddy’s personal life. His main focus is pushing these kids to their full academic potential.  

All he wants is for his colleagues—and the endlessly meddlesome parents—to stay out of his way. If not, well, they’ll get what they deserve.

It’s really too bad that sometimes excellence can come at such a high cost.

Murder on campus? Yes please.

Earlier tonight I noticed something. I’ve been on a bender with thrillers in an academic setting all summer. So far I’ve read:

All thrillers, all set in a school. I guess I have a type?

Ted Lasso is about to lose it

Poor Nathan

Note: spoilers for season 2 of Ted Lasso

Season 2 of Ted Lasso feels “off.” Specifically, Ted himself seems to be doing a “Ted Lasso” impression, working extra hard to be folksy, quick with one-liners and jokes, jokes, jokes. He’s actually annoying at times. I find myself wanting to say, “Ted, give the jokes a break for just 30 seconds.” Some have proposed that this is evidence of the show’s sophomore slump. But I agree with Phil Hornshaw, writing for Game Spot. Ted is having a breakdown right before our eyes.

Look at the evidence:

  1. We’ve seen Ted use humor to cope with stress before. Now, the one-liners are incessant.
  2. We saw him drinking alone on Christmas day (not the first time we’ve seen Ted dive into a bottle while lamenting the state of his family).
  3. The team hasn’t won a single match.
  4. Coach Beard had to snap Ted out of the abusive “Led Tasso” character he put on to move the team’s negative feelings away from Jamie Tartt and onto himself.

Speaking of, let’s talk about Jamie Tartt.

Ted has made decisions that seem very out-of-character in season two, the biggest one being re-signing Jamie Tartt. In season one Jamie was a major distraction, a selfish, narcissistic bully who made almost everyone unhappy. He was relentlessly cruel to Nathan (now on the coaching staff), always at odds with Roy (now on the coaching staff), and controlling of Keeley (now on the team staff and dating Roy). Why did Ted bring Jamie back, despite the huge can of worms that move would open? Not to benefit the team, but because Ted feels Jamie got ripped off in the dad department. Jamie is back because Ted feels guilty over how he’s fathering his own son, 3,000 miles away.

In addition to this, there’s conveniently a new psychologist character on the show whom Ted is avoiding like the plague.

Ted is annoying this season. He is making odd decisions and behaving out-of-character. But I believe that’s all by design. Ted will lose it before the season ends, it will be ugly, and his behavior up until that point will make sense. I believe this will be a tremendous season of Ted Lasso, but they’re playing the long game and we just have to wait for it.

Teen love: A House at the Bottom of a Lake

Note: this post contains Amazon affiliate links.

Show of hands: whose first date was spent exploring a haunted house at the bottom of a lake? No takers I see. Then let’s live vicariously through the James and Amelia, the teenaged main characters of A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman.

This brief novella (114 pages) gets right to the point when 17-year-old James asks Amelia, also 17, on a date. The pair borrow his uncle’s canoe and enjoy a typical day on the water until a previously hidden tunnel brings them to an adjacent lake they’d never seen before. Even more incredible is the two-story house just beneath its surface. Unable to resist exploring the frightening yet exhilarating mystery, the teens dive in and find everything in the house is intact: rugs, books, paintings, a coatrack that stands upright, unmoved by currents. They return home, take scuba lessons (off camera as it were) and return to the watery treasure again and again, their infatuation growing with each dive.

Malerman (who’s previous book Bird Box had people falling down and hurting themselves for fun) creates a cozy snapshot of a summer shared by two young adults experiencing the thrills and anxieties of their first real relationship. In fact, the house is a metaphor for exactly that: it’s intoxicating yet scary. Familiar yet completely foreign. The kids soon become overwhelmed not by the house itself, but their fascination with it.

The book is categorized as horror and while there are some moody, atmospheric scenes, it’s not scary. Dresses float around the sunken house as if worn by unseen occupants, and Amelia has a startling experience while looking into a mirror. These scenes and others like them foster a creepy vibe and that’s all they’re meant to do.

As a novella A House at the Bottom of a Lake is very much a snapshot of a larger story, so there’s not a lot of “how” or “why” (the kids even adopt the mantra, “Don’t ask how or why”). We don’t see the kids take scuba lessons or learn where their equipment came from. They start spending days at a time at the house, and there’s no mention of their parents’ concern over their disappearance. They eat, and I wonder where the food comes from. You can quibble over details like this, but it’s best to let them go and sink into the story.

The ending. I won’t spoil anything but it’s divisive. I’ll let you read it yourself.

A House at the Bottom of a Lake can be read in a sitting and that’s how I’d advise reading it, letting yourself sink into memories of that first special someone.

Witches, Golden Remedy, and All’s Well that Ends Well

Note: this review contains Amazon Affiliate links.

Author Mona Awad’s All’s Well features protagonist Miranda Fitch, a drama professor who suffers from chronic pain yet is determined to stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, a “problem play” that Professor Fitch describes as “…neither a tragedy nor a comedy, something in between.” She could also be describing Awad’s novel, which is funny, dark, at times frustrating and confounding.

The story begins with Miranda, an untenured assistant professor at a small New England college. The school’s theatre department, such that it is, has dwindled to two people, Miranda and her friend Grace (“the bitches of the English Department,” Miranda calls them). Miranda is hell bent on having her largely untalented students put on All’s Well that End Well. The mutinous students, however, want the more accessible Macbeth as the semester’s production. While Miranda floats through a haze of pain killers, white wine, and full-body pain, her students await her in the theatre. And wait. And wait. Again.

It’s only after Miranda meets a trio of mysterious, unnamed doctors in the local bar that she (and we) get respite from her pain. In a bit of surreal magic that will feel familiar to those who read Awad’s 2019 novel Bunny, the trio — reminiscent of the witches in Macbeth — offer a pair of gifts. For Miranda, the ability to physically pass her pain on to others. To the school, a large endowment. All they ask for in exchange is “…a really good show.” Specifically, a production of All’s Well that Ends Well.

I say “we” get respite from Miranda’s pain because that’s exactly how it feels. By having Miranda be the story’s narrator, Awad puts us in intimate proximity to the pain that occupies her protagonist’s body and her time. Having cost Miranda her career (it started when she fell off of a stage while performing Helen in All’s Well That Ends Well), her friendships, and her marriage, Miranda’s pain is front-and-center for the first hundred pages and it’s quite claustrophobic and uncomfortable. When she finally found relief so did I, and that’s a point of the book: we don’t want to look at female pain. We want it to go away so that we can feel better. If I’m being honest, by “we” I mean “men.”

Miranda sees one physical therapist after another, all male (four of whom are named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They bend, twist, crack and placate with their “bro good looks” and “blue polo shirts.” At one point, Miranda is given a video to watch which features an animated, anthropomorphized brain who subtly describes that often times, pain only exists in our heads.

Things get surreal from here and the book‘s conclusion has left some scratching their heads. If you’re put off by the bizarre and a book whose climax requires interpretation, you might find All’s Well frustrating. I do feel the book could be a little shorter and Miranda’s descriptions of her pain can feel relentless, but that’s a point the story is trying to make, I believe. You want to look away; don’t. You want to be free of this; no.

Awad’s writing is beautiful and witty. I found myself re-reading sentences just for the pleasure of them. For example, Miranda describes the actress in a medication ad thusly: “…she attempts a face of what I presume to be her invisible suffering. Her brow furrows as though she’s about to take a difficult shit or else have a furious but forgettable orgasm.”

I thoroughly enjoyed All’s Well (and Bunny). I’m quite looking forward to what Awad writes next.

Oops new books

This morning I visited two of my favorite book stores and walked out with two new books.

First, I grabbed All’s Well by Mona Awad from the Brewster Book Store. This title was just published on August 3rd and follows Bunny, which is one of my favorite books of 2021 so far. From the jacket:

…a darkly funny novel about a theatre professor suffering chronic pain who, in the process of staging a troubled production of Shakespeare’s most maligned play, suddenly and miraculously recovers.

If it’s “darkly funny” in the way that Bunny was, I’m sure I’ll love it.

Next I visited The Sea Howl Book Shop to pick up For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing. I’m just now realizing I’ve read four books this year in an academic setting. It’s a theme I didn’t even realize was happening. I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm for For Your Own Good online and I’m eager to star it. From the jacket:

Teddy really can’t be bothered with a few mysterious deaths on campus that’re looking more and more like murder or the student digging a little too deep into Teddy’s personal life. His main focus is pushing these kids to their full academic potential.  

All he wants is for his colleagues—and the endlessly meddlesome parents—to stay out of his way. If not, well, they’ll get what they deserve.

Murder on campus. Yes, please. I’ll let you know what I think of these after I finish The Maidens. My TBR list is growing.