Small town, big life {F*ckface by Leah Hampton}

F*ckface and Other Stories is a brassy, bighearted debut collection of twelve short stories about rurality, corpses, honeybee collapse, and illicit sex in post-coal Appalachia.
The twelve stories in this knockout collection—some comedic, some tragic, many both at once—examine the interdependence between rural denizens and their environment.

A young girl, desperate for a way out of her small town, finds support in an unlikely place. A ranger working along the Blue Ridge Parkway realizes that the dark side of the job, the all too frequent discovery of dead bodies, has taken its toll on her. Haunted by his past, and his future, a tech sergeant reluctantly spends a night with his estranged parents before being deployed to Afghanistan. Nearing fifty and facing new medical problems, a woman wonders if her short stint at the local chemical plant is to blame. A woman takes her husband’s research partner on a day trip to her favorite place on earth, Dollywood, and briefly imagines a different life.

In the vein of Bonnie Jo Campbell and Lee Smith, Leah Hampton writes poignantly and honestly about a legendary place that’s rapidly changing. She takes us deep inside the lives of the women and men of Appalachia while navigating the realities of modern life with wit, bite, and heart.

My two cents

I have a penchant for short story collections so I was happy to get my hands on this debut collection by Leah Hampton. With such great timing, it was like a lovely breath of fresh air during the first lockdown in 2020. It was a relief to have a physical copy of short stories that made me laugh-cry-cringe and everything in between.

There are 12 stories in all, and each offers insight into everyday people's lives in a rapidly changing Appalachia, a region known for its beautiful mountainous landscapes, rich natural resources, yet extreme poverty.

I enjoyed each of these stories -- they are simple, simply told, honest, and some, very raw. I feel that they will resonate with many as the human experience in these stories are wide and varied. While the setting or the circumstances may not be within your own set of experiences, I can guarantee that the emotions they can stir up within you are very much relatable. They'll evoke bittersweet emotions - a mix of sad, tragic, and yes .... even hopeful. 

The stories

F*ckface is about Pretty, a young, very shy girl who works at the local grocery store. She's never imagined working outside of her small town but her more worldly friend triggers her discontent. Pretty finds an unlikely ally in her the person she and her colleagues dubbed as f*ckface.   

Boomer is about Larry, a dedicated firefighter who slowly loses his wife while fighting the greatest fire their area has seen in decades. 

Wireless is about Margaret, whose haunted past propelled her to leave her hometown. Ironically, family brings her back to confront her past and eventually come to terms with it. 

Parkway is about Priscilla, a park ranger, whose otherwise humdrum outdoor job brings her face to face with the occasional and shocking dead body. 

Twitchell features Iva who suddenly starts bleeding during a pottery class. This gets her started on a series of doctor's appointments which gets her questioning whether a job long ago at the local chemical plant - and economic bane of the town - is the culprit. 

Mingo is about a woman who accompanies her husband to visit her husband's stubborn father in the hospital. She gets much more than she bargains for, but finds herself willing to go along. 
Frogs is about middle-aged siblings, Carolyn and Frank, who try to spice up their mundane lives by joining in a nature walk. Ironically, they find themselves feeling uncomfortable and out of place as the only locals on the walk.

Devil is about tech sergeant Boggs, who visits his deeply religious parents to make amends. Unflinching in their belief, they denounce him as the "devil" they've always known him to be, and he leaves for Afghanistan sadly and tragically no closer to his family.

Queen is about a woman who tries to save her mother's legacy of taking action with her bee colonies.

Meat is about Alison, a young intern at the local dairy, faces small town life (and death) at a funeral after a big fire.

Saint is an homage to a beloved brother, a streams-of-consciousness meandering of precious memories throughout their lives.

Sparkle is about a woman who takes her husband’s friend to Dollywood, and gains insight into what a different life she could have had. 

Verdict: These slice-of-life stories of everyday people in Appalachia will make you laugh and cry, together, and in a good way. Highly recommended! Hampton is definitely one to watch out for!

Disclaimer: I received a copy through the publisher Henry Holt and Co. 

Quarantine reading and why I don't really hate Libby

  • Monday, July 13, 2020

Hi everyone, I know it's been really quiet here. Lots of things have happened personally in the past year with me, and then COVID-19 happened. I hope you and your loved ones are safe and you continue to be so. 
This blog has been always safe haven for me, and reading and the book blogging continues to be a source of comfort for me. I may not be that active in the community but I love following along (lurking) in the conversations that continue out there. I love the fact that a lot of my contemporaries out there are still quite active and still welcoming more people into the wonderful world of books, reading and blogging.

Like many of you, I've turned to reading to help me with the stresses of life. At the beginning of the pandemic, I couldn't for the life of me focus on a book. I have gotten over that hump and now have turned to rereading a lot of books I have on hand, reading books I haven't gotten to, and ... *heaven forbid* reading e-books!

Consider my Goodreads:

I've got a mix of Filipino reads which I either bought myself in the Philippines or was a gift, a bunch of ebooks I borrowed on Libby through the library, two review copies from publishers. And ... I've re-read these two lovelies, which I didn't bother adding to Goodreads:

  • M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman, which I never reviewed on this blog because I loved it so much
  • Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whereby my review is inadequate considering that I consider this to be among my all-time GGM favourites

  • Now, on to Libby. Who's Libby, you may ask? She's my new friend, my new shiny toy, and who I don't hate as much as I did when I started with ebooks. When the quarantine happened, this seriously limited my source of books. Libraries were closed and real books were off limits ... with the exception of what I already had on hand. All but the online choices for books ... ebooks!

    I gave ebooks a whirl early on and never really warmed up to them. I still struggle with reading online because I already spend my entire day working on a computer. But I've learned to compromise. And it's opened up a lot of new reading material to me.

    Libby is an app used by my local library so I can borrow ebooks. I'm still getting used to it but I have borrowed six ebooks thus far. I'm also still forming my opinion about it but so far, yay Libby! 

    Have any of you used Libby? What are your thoughts about this app?

    Of the great equalizer {Educated by Tara Westover}

    Of the great equalizer, education.

    About Educated by Tara Westover: Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling supplies and sleeping with her “head for the hills” bag. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.

    Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or a nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to intervene when her brother became violent or when her father’s Mormon beliefs drifted toward the extreme.

    Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She ultimately taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events such as the Holocaust. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if there was still a way home.

    A riveting account of the struggle for self-invention, Educated is also a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties.

    My two cents

    I don’t know how many times I audibly gasped reading Tara Westover’s autobiography! When people talk of overcoming adversity and challenges, sometimes it’s hard to understand just how it really is. However, in this memoir, Westover doesn’t sugarcoat a thing. She recalls a a traumatic childhood of hard labour, abuse, and neglect in a family dealing with mental illness. Reading all this is tough, but it drives home the point that this is a reality for many of those who live in rural America.

    What makes this particularly ingratiating is that Westover doesn’t seem to have an ounce of self pity as she tells her story. Nor does she seem to bear a grudge on her family members who perpetuated the cycle of abuse, neglect, and simply holding her back.

    Often we talk about the importance of exposure and education to better ourselves. Bill Gates talks about this memoir in glowing terms. Check out his review and a video of his chat with Westover.

    What particularly struck me was when Westover says:
    “I worry that education is becoming a stick that some people use to beat other people into submission or becoming something that people feel arrogant about,” she said. “I think education is really just a process of self-discovery—of developing a sense of self and what you think. I think of [it] as this great mechanism of connecting and equalizing.”

    Verdict: I recommend reading this honest and matter-of-fact storytelling of her journey from illiterate country hick to a life of learning, believing in herself and her innate capabilities. Truly, you can’t keep a good woman down.

    What no one tells you about #KonMari and book regret

    • Sunday, March 10, 2019

    ... and how much it really hurts

    I am suffering from some serious book regret. If you were livid when you heard Marie Kondo purportedly declaring you should “only should have 30 books” (untrue, she never said it), then read on.

    Close to a year ago, we had to move — about 2000 km away. We were moving from a two-bedroom house with basement to a one-bedroom apartment.

    Moving costs money so everything oversized and heavy had to stay. I was brutal when culling my books and I even ignored the whole “spark joy” feeling. I had my other family members do their own culling - yes, I drank the Konmari Kool-Aid and was not going to make that decision for them.

    I initially felt great after the purge. High fives all around. I knew I was oh-so-practical. I knew I was saving money.

    So we hied off to the new home and before I knew it, I was craving certain books. My lovely short story collections - I looked up some of these books in the local library and surprise, surprise, many weren’t there (credit my obscure taste for short stories). The SO asks where I had put his copy of Cain, and gggrrr ... I tell him that he specifically said it was fine to give away, yes he did, he really did. The other month, I was looking back at old blog posts and realized that I had tossed a whole bunch of vintage Agatha Christies into my donation bin, collected over years of thrift store hauls. Over the months, I have been having these severe moments of regret.

    My takeaways from the whole experience?

    Take the time to find out which books spark joy in you. Why the hell did I cave in to pressure of practicality, I keep asking myself? Well, we we under a time crunch. If you have the luxury of time, don’t do your book decluttering when you feel you’re under duress.

    When in doubt, don’t throw it out. The books you’re lukewarm about, keep them. Then do another culling. Or not. The problem with this whole spark joy business is that on the day I did the cull, I was in different mindset and didn’t have time to process what I was keeping and letting go of.

    Don’t let anyone else dictate how you should feel about letting go of a book. ‘Nuff said.

    Give yourself permission to keep some sentimental books. Sure these books are replaceable, and maybe even borrowable from the library. But there is something deeply personal about certain books. I loved my short story collections, with many of them being ARCs; I was among the first to read, love and and review them! I loved my vintage Christies; can I ever get back that feeling of holding those ARCs or that initial thrill of spotting them glinting on those shelves?

    And with that, I say, be kind to yourself. Decluttering requires a ready mind, and in some cases, a ready wallet. Sometimes that extra few dollars will save you heartache.

    Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

    Fictional true crime done right {Dark Places by Gillian Flynn}

    Fictional true crime done right: dark and twisted

    About Dark Places by Gillian Flynn: Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice" of Kinnakee, Kansas.” She survived—and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, the Kill Club—a secret secret society obsessed with notorious crimes—locates Libby and pumps her for details. They hope to discover proof that may free Ben. Libby hopes to turn a profit off her tragic history: She’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club—for a fee. As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started—on the run from a killer.

    My two cents

    I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.
    Can someone say Truman Capote? Reading Flynn’s Dark Places, I had nostalgic twinges of reading In Cold Blood. I know this is fictional crime, but hey, it felt absolutely horrific getting into the minds of killer, survivor, witness. I felt myself flailing internally to keep reading. But Flynn had a disturbingly tight hold on me and I soldiered on to the end to find out the truth of The Satan Sacrifice Murders.

    Libby is messed up. But she has every right to be - she survived the murder of her mother and two sisters by her older brother, Ben, 25 years ago. Cruelly, she was the one who had put her only surviving family member in jail for life. Libby is unable to hold jobs, and was living on funds donated by sympathetic do-gooders. With a failed book deal and funds running dangerously low, Libby milks any possibility of money to survive.

    Enter the Kill Club, a group of people morbidly interested in high profile, notorious crimes. Libby is thrust into a precarious dilemma as she realizes that the club believes that Ben is innocent and she is practically accused of providing false testimony. Looking back, she realizes that she was coached in court since age seven, and as alternative theories and evidence are presented to her, Libby starts to question her own memories. The hope that maybe, just maybe, things aren’t what she thinks.

    Why I liked this:

    It’s got the Flynn trademark all over it. This is dark, twisted and sickening. It’s about a violent and gory massacre. It’s about perverse minds. It feels gritty, trashy, seedy, dirty, crude. And I feel the same way, a dirtiness on me that I don’t want. But, why oh why, does it all come together so well that you can’t put it down despite wanting to turn away and read something sunnier? Again I say it: Flynn is a brilliant and provocative storyteller.

    Libby and the cast of characters. Flynn does it again with aplomb by giving us the flawed Libby as the centre of the story. Flynn never fails to deliver on interesting characters: Libby is severely damaged, troubled, selfish, crude, unlikable; she's not someone I’d care to know in real life. But she is relatable and realistic. The trauma she experienced as a child understandably has warped her in serious ways but I love her for her can-do survivor spirit.

    The other characters are also flawed, unlikable and realistic. I was torn in believing Ben to be innocent but as the story moved along, his darkness slowly came through. Patty’s fierce sense of family resonated with me and her desperation for keeping her family financially afloat lends a rather odd mundanity to the massacre. The two sisters, while children, were painted as less than innocent. One standout character to me that links Libby to her family to the present is her aunt Diane. As the host characters walk through these pages, more and more you come to realize that people are inherently perverse, and that’s just the fact of the matter.

    Multiple viewpoints and impeccable pacing. Propelling the storytelling is that this is told from different points of view as well as being paced for revelations to come to light at just the right time. This deftly voices out Libby (present day), Libby’s older brother Ben (1985) and their mother, Patty (1985). The massacre that transpired on that fateful day in 1985 becomes a pivot point for Ben and Patty to provide their own accounts, their sometimes chilling state of mind in their motivations.

    Uh oh’s

    If you’ve read Flynn, you already know that this is not a book for everyone because of its dark themes. It has graphic violence and gore, perverted sex, and depicts molestation and abuse.


    I’ve now read the Flynn trilogy of dark, twisted goodness. Seriously, if this review of Dark Places doesn’t convince you that she is worth your while, check out my reviews of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects.

    With true crime a hugely popular genre in film and books, I’ve no doubt this one will grab the attention of fans.

    © guiltless readingMaira Gall