Beach reads: 5 reasons to pick up The Opposite of Loneliness

by author Laura Hurwitz

I am writing this on the heels of a two-week beach vacation, during which I had the gift of time to read.

Beach reads are, by definition, light, easily digestible fare. And while attention spans tend to be shortened when the senses are constantly diverted by pounding surf and five o’clock cocktails, I prefer to read bite-sized quality as opposed to gorging on the literary equivalent of junk food. That’s why I’ve been loving short stories.

A writing teacher of mine once said novels are too large for perfection, but short stories are small enough that they can be polished to near-flawlessness. They can also be read in one sitting and reflected upon for hours, making them the perfect beach read.

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This summer, one collection of short stories stood out for me: The Opposite of Loneliness, by a young writer named Marina Keegan. Keegan was twenty-two years old when, five days after graduating magna cum laude from Yale and poised to embark on an already- promising literary career, she was killed in a car accident.

  • The stories in The Opposite of Loneliness have no common theme. Keegan explores a variety of relationships, romantic and familial, and every plot is distinctive. One story, “Cold Pastoral”, explores a young woman’s reaction to the sudden death of a quasi-boyfriend; another, the terrifying “Challenger Deep,” is about a submarine that catastrophically loses power, trapping its crew in darkness at the bottom of an unfathomable ocean trench.
  • Keegan writes headlong, her youthful zest shaded by an oddly prescient wisdom. She has a natural ability to pace her stories, and her dialogue is effortlessly uncontrived.
  • One of the reviews of her work claims Keegan is “not merely a gifted college writer, but a gifted writer.”
    • This is intended as an accolade, I’m sure, but I disagree. The fact that Keegan is a college writer is precisely why she is so remarkable. She wrote from the perspective that her entire life, with its plans, dreams, and endless possibilities, stretched out before her. She wrote from the carpe diem edge, embodying the unshakeable conviction that her words would someday make a difference to the world. She was, in her own words, the “Yes to everything!”
  • The Opposite of Loneliness is the enduring record of a gifted college writer’s urgent voice, cut short. That it is published posthumously adds a layer of poignancy to Keegan’s words, but even cut loose from the tragic backstory, the narratives shine. They are immediately engaging, which is the single most important attribute of any successful short story.

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After summer is over and the beach is but a distant memory, short stories make for great year-round reading. One of my all-time favorites is Shirley Jackson’s grim, iconic “The Lottery,” which definitely inspired The Hunger Games. I also recommend these collections: Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle.

Laura Hurwitz is a graduate of Yale University. She is the author of six travel-essay books, maintains a popular blog, and recently began a podcast (parents, please note the content and language). Laura lives with her husband, Sam, and, on occasion, some number of her six adult children in Connecticut.  

What’s one of your favorite beach reads?

Beach reads: 5 reasons to pick up The Opposite of Loneliness

5 ways to head back to school

Our authors take us on a stroll through memory lane as they give us a glimpse into their lives as students.

Sherry Shahan back to school graduation 2From Vietnam

Being in high school during the tumultuous 1960s was insane. That was the time of the first Watts Riots and seemingly endless Vietnam War. We didn’t have cell phones, let alone text. My family only had one landline. No call-waiting or answering machine. I exchanged lengthy hand-written letters with my friends at school. (Usually composed during math.) When a guy in our crowd was drafted it seemed logical that I send juicy tidbits of our crowd’s shenanigans. (His letters have been in a tattered shoebox for nearly 50 years.) I believe those years of intense correspondence shaped me into the writer I am today. –Author Sherry Shahan

LauraHurwitzandbrother1950s or so back to school

Pictured: Author Laura Hurwitz with her brother in the 1950s

The summer between 5th and 6th grade my family moved to a different part of town, which meant going to a new school. While my reputation for being a shy nerd had been etched in stone at my old school, I had a shot at a clean slate. When I showed up at the bus stop wearing the back-to-school outfit my mother picked out, which included white socks and saddle shoes like Blanche DuBois, I found myself dependent upon the kindness of a stranger, Diana, who was a year older than me and exponentially cooler. She told me it would be a mistake to wear this outfit to school, as I would get made fun of. She suggested I take the socks off and hide them in a nearby hedge. Then, the second I got home from school, I should make my mother buy a pair of penny loafers for me. I followed her instructions, thereby surviving sixth grade. To this day I don’t know why she went out of her way to be kind to me, but I do know this: I was not an outcast because pretty, popular Diana was not a stereotype. –Laura Hurwitz

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Pictured: Author Jolene Perry in high school

When I was in high school, we had open campus for lunch. But the ability to leave during lunch didn’t do us much good because my high school was a small school out in the sticks. We’d attempted to make a Taco Bell run during lunch, but always missed the first ten minutes of fifth period because it was about fifteen miles away. The consolation? Near the end of the long road that our school sat on the end of was a fireworks stand with a gigantic gorilla out front. Lunch consisted of speeding down Hawk Lane, driving under the large gorilla while honking obnoxiously and then off-roading down the four-wheeler trailer, and into the middle of the creek at the bottom of the hill. We’d crawl out the windows of my truck into the bed and eat lunch with the creek water running around us. One of those very unique experiences that doesn’t feel unique until much later. And every time I drive by that fireworks stand, I remember high school lunch. –Jolene Perry

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Pictured: Author Felicia Sanzari Chernesky on the first day of school in 1969

Like most parents, this time each August I’m eager for the school year to arrive (cue that popular Staples commercial). Even as a young child I’d get butterflies anticipating those first September school days. I soon associated school bus rides with falling leaves and apple picking, and the harvest season came to signify bounty and new adventures in learning and independence. I remember the thrill of poring over a Scholastic book flyer and getting to choose one book myself! My first treasured selections: Happiness Is a Warm Puppy, by Charles Schulz, and the wonderfully silly Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing, by Judi and Ron Barrett. The well-worn copies still populate our family bookshelves. Something resonated within my school and autumn-loving spirit when From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! came to fruition. I’m delighted to discover that the kinds of storytelling and artwork that nourished my love of reading and learning is growing within my own books! To all things there is a season—and I’m grateful to be finding my purpose and place. –Felicia Sanzari Chernesky

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Pictured: Author Jacqueline Jules

In fourth grade, our teacher—a slim brunette in her early twenties—read aloud Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos. I remember the delight on my teacher’s face as she read Amos’s account of Benjamin Franklin’s illustrious career. Amos, the mouse, has such a strong personality in the book. I almost felt like I was in that fur hat whispering in Franklin’s ear and watching him attend political gatherings in France. Of course I knew that a mouse didn’t really provide the creative ideas for Franklin’s amazing success, but the mouse-size view of history was highly amusing. I loved sitting in my desk listening to the story come alive in my teacher’s lilting voice. She was always smiling when she read aloud. Enjoying Ben and Me as a group experience has stayed with me through the years. I can still see the image of my teacher, chuckling while she read in front of the class. In today’s world, there isn’t always time to read books aloud in the classroom. I am grateful that I grew up in a more relaxed educational era and could enjoy many classroom read alouds. It helped make me the reader (and writer) I am today. –Jacqueline Jules

What’s your favorite back-to-school memory?

5 ways to head back to school

Father’s Day: Authors Tell All Part 2

Summer is officially here, and it’s Father’s Day weekend! Our authors’ fathers continue to influence their lives to this day.

Leslie Kimmelman dadSam & Charlie

(Pictured: Author Leslie Kimmelman with her dad, mom, and son) My father is the person who instilled in me a love of words. He delights in them. When I was little, he used to have a huge stack of file cards on which he wrote the meaning of (and a sentence for) every new word he came across.  He also gave me my appreciation for good writing. He never gets tired of declaiming Shakespeare soliloquies, Winston Churchill speeches, and excerpts from Sir Thomas Malory’s “The Death of Arthur.” When he finishes, he inevitably is teary-eyed, saying something along the lines of, “Man, now he could write!”


Sherry Shahan Father's DaySkin and Bones

(Pictured: Author Sherry Shahan with family) This 60-year-old family photo is the only one that remains of my dad. That’s me the lacy collar and cuffs, looking deceptively innocent. My dad was a voracious playwright, submitted his work when the mood struck, and remained frustrated that his stories were never produced. I began my writing career with edgy short stories for the adult market. He offered terrific feedback, usually telling me to amp up the tension. He and Mom tied for “Proud Parent” when my first novel came out in 1996. Miss you Daddy-O!


Eric Futran and fatherShow Me Happy

(Pictured: Photographer Eric Futran and father) Take a look at his YouTube video on ruminations on Love and Walls between fathers and sons.


Sarah Scheerger Fathers DayOpposite of Love(Pictured: Author Sarah Lynn Scheerger with her father) My dad was one of those hard working fathers who missed out on the day to day routines of dinner, homework, activities, and chores. But I remember him being there for the big things. Family vacations, a trip to San Francisco when I was ten, visiting me out of state when I attended summer dance intensives, meeting my dates at the door, and waiting up for me until I arrived home, sometimes with his arms crossed. But my favorite memories of my dad are the most recent ones— seeing him morph into a grandfather. I see the joy he takes with my own children, and how they adore him. When my baby reaches her arms out to him the moment she sees him, I see how good it makes him feel.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! Thank you for always being there for me, no matter what! I love you!


 

Laura Hurwitz Fathers DayDisappear Home

(Pictured: Author Laura Hurwitz with her father on her wedding day) My dad was your typical ‘50s dad—ambitious, conservative, and a heavy drinker. He belonged to the right social clubs and spent every clement weekend on the golf course. I was a rebel. The one thing I didn’t stonewall him on was attending college, despite my insistence that college would be an irrelevant joke. About that, Dad, I was wrong. When I was 18 and a college sophomore my father suffered a massive stroke. Doctors put his chances of survival at 10%. But survive he did, and after months of rehabilitation he resumed his life and his career. The stroke made him a kinder, gentler person. When I was home from school we’d go on long walks and talk. We laughed. We made room for each other’s different ways of seeing the world. And when I got married in a homemade dress with a wreath of wildflowers in my hair, well, Dad was cool with that.

In the aftermath of his stroke he demonstrated attributes I’ve come to rely on as a writer, including optimism and patience. Through him, I learned wisdom is like a good story; not something you find, but something that finds you.


 

Barb Reid fathers DayThe Night Before Christmas

(Pictured: Author and Illustrator Barbara Reid with her father, Bob Reid, circa 1962) When I was a little kid, I made some fake Liquorice allsorts candies out of plasticine. I’m sure they were not very convincing, but my dad played along and bit into one, much to my delight. That’s how my dad encouraged my artistic development, imagination and good sportsmanship – thanks Dad!


Margaret Read MacDonald with fatherParty Croc

(Pictured: Author Margaret Read MacDonald‘s father) My father,  Murray Read, loved to fish. In this picture he has a really big ling cod. He always caught a lot of fish for me. But unlike Zuva in Party Croc! I never promised my father a party in return. Daddy had a little wooden boat and a small motor for it. He would take me out in the evenings after work and we would go way down along the island to a place where huge black cliffs dropped straight down into the water. An oldtimer had told Daddy exactly how to line the boat up…sighting three points…and then he would drop his line. And right away a cod would grab it and he would haul it up. He knew just how to jerk the line up and down really quick and catch the cod. When I tried it didn’t work as well. We would motor back home,  climb the steep sand bluff to our little cabin,  and Momma would fry up the cod for dinner!   

Father’s Day: Authors Tell All Part 2

Joan Didion, Patron Saint of the ’60s

We’re excited to announce that our YA author, Laura Hurwitz, has written a #FridayReads post this week! Be sure to check out Laura’s Tumblr

Joan Didion first entered my life when I was a college freshman. It was 1973 and the book of her collected essays on our required reading list was Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion got the title from the Yeats poem “The Second Coming” which you should read, if you haven’t already, because it captures the chaotic social tenor of the 1960s, which is what this particular collection of Didion’s essays encompasses.

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At the time, Didion made me feel worse than I already did about my generation, positioned as we were at the dawn of disco, which even then I perceived as the gateway culture to the ’70s Me Generation. As a young adolescent, I longed to be a hippie, to belong to a movement that was, to my mind, at least, defiant and romantic and, most of all, cohesive. I held onto this dream, which inspired and informed my YA novel, Disappear Home. Didion’s unflinching vision evoked the ’60s in a way that made me feel like a counter-culture insider, rather than a wistful wannabe.

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Didion is not just smart, but whip-smart—not simply observant, but incisively so. She is not, to quote Holden Caulfield, a phony, but the real deal. I was immediately pulled into her writerly admixture of wonder and dread, a literary vortex where things that happened mattered in a way that cut to the bone, unlike now, when it seems we just slough things off and move on. What keeps me a Didion devotee, though, is not her keen evaluative eye but the perfection of her prose.

This is “In the Islands” from her 1977 collection of essays, The White Album.

…I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind…You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.

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Even now, reading Didion keeps me on my toes. She requires me to look up things like “meliorative principle.” I am consistently mesmerized by her ability to examine life without the slightest intention of demystifying anything, but rather, to reveal its bewilderingly illogical complexity. She makes me acutely aware that every shiny surface connects to a dark underbelly, a fact not confined to a time period or a social movement, but emblematic of the human condition.

At 80, Joan Didion is still writing. In 2005, her memoir of her husband John’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, won The National Book Award. The subject is intensely personal, but the theme of death and loss is universal, and the voice is one hundred percent Didion.

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What I would say is if you haven’t read Joan Didion, do. A good place to start is the collection of the full content of her first seven volume of non-fiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (Everyman’s Library).

Joan Didion, Patron Saint of the ’60s