• book reviews

    Book Review: Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood

    The political turmoil in the world has made me turn this year to Margaret Atwood, who is enjoying a resurgence as a result of her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale being broadcast as a much acclaimed television series. I haven’t reread The Handmaid’s Tale, which does still stick with me from when I first read it nearly 20 years ago, but I have been working my way through her other novels. Given the time constraints in my life, I’ve been picking them out mostly by page length, which brings me to Moral Disorder and Other Stories, a novel told in a series of short stories.

    Even Atwood’s earliest novels are full of her wit, wry humor and bitingly funny characterization, so it is unsurprising to discover these same qualities throughout all of the stories, which tell the life story of a woman named Nell in short episodes. The stories are framed by aging; in the first story, Nell is in late middle age and meditating on the nature of a long-term marriage. In the next, she is a young girl, who has yet to meet Tig, the married man that she makes her life with. By the last stories, Nell is long past her adventures and taking care of her elderly parents. Although each story could stand alone, together they tell a powerful story of an ordinary, but interesting, life spent in the Canadian countryside and wilderness.

    Moral Disorder and Other Stories is very much literary fiction, so some readers may find it frustrating, particularly if they’re not accustomed to the genre or to short story collections. But for readers who are willing to forgo an orderly plot for the love of language, there are many delights to be found in each story’s vivid description and Atwood’s strong voice.

    It’s morning. For now, night is over. It’s time for the bad news. I think of the bad news as a huge bird, with the wings of a crow and the face of my Grade Four school teacher, sparse bun, rancid teeth, wrinkly frown, pursed mouth and all, sailing around the world under cover of darkness, pleased to be the bearer of ill tidings, carrying a basket of rotten eggs, and knowing — as the sun comes up — exactly where to drop them. On me, for one.

    One theme that has emerged for me, in reading several of Atwood’s early novels, is how prevalent the Canadian wilderness is in her writing. Perhaps because I have always lived either in a city or in its suburbs, there’s something about the wilderness and the farm settings in Moral Disorder and Other Stories that really caught my imagination. Nell and Tig rent a farm and then later purchase their own. They are city people pretending at the rural life, so it is not too surprising that their first set of ducklings are eaten by owls. After this first disastrous foray into livestock, their herd begins to expand in much more productive ways. First there are Tig’s children from his first marriage, who visit on weekends, running wild around the farm and smoking pot in the barn. Then there’s a high-strung dog, a herd of sheep, constantly escaping cows and eventually a fat horse. Atwood doesn’t shy away from the brutality of farm life, as Nell trades in her city upbringing for a rural lifestyle, but she always shows the beauty in it as well.

    There’s never been such a lovely spring, Nell thought. Frogs — or were they toads? — trilled from the pond, and there were pussy willows and catkins — what was the difference? — and then the hawthorn bushes and the wild plums and the neglected apple trees came into bloom, and an uneven row of daffodils planted by some long-vanished farmer’s wife thrust up through the weeds and dead grasses besides the drive. Birds sang. Mud dried.

    Unfortunately, for me, the last story did a poor job of finishing off the book, because some of the details contradicted and confused the overall narrative arc, which pulled me straight out of the story and had me flipping back pages to see if I had missed something. Perhaps I had – or perhaps the story kept its conflicting details because, like many of the stories in the collection, it was published elsewhere before being collected into this novel. But for all that the novel felt unresolved because of this, I would gladly read the whole novel over to answer my questions.

    It’s just that there are so many other Atwood novels that I have yet to read…

    Publisher: Doubleday
    Publish Date: 2006
    Hardcover: 225 pages
    ISBN: 0385503849
    Language: English
    Rating: 3 of 5 stars

     

  • art,  books,  motherhood,  parenting,  politics,  racism

    May You Live in Interesting Times

    This is not a great time to be a sensitive person walking the world.

    I’ve read a number of lovely blog posts that are clinging to hope, despite the dark and interesting times that our new administration seems to have put us in.  I’ve read poems and shared in the general outcry of the many, many people that are horrified at the recent actions of our country to tear apart Muslim families.  As the wife of a former green card holder, it’s been difficult not to walk around in panic, because our story can’t be told without also being an immigrant story that is very much like the people that I am reading about now — people who are being detained not 10 miles from my house.

    My heart is not light, so I’m finding it hard to write light-hearted.  I have half a dozen blog posts that are queued up in draft, because I can’t quite seem to get to the right frame of mind to put something silly and frivolous into the world.

    There is much that I could tell you about, much that I should have told you about by now.  We moved into a new house at Hallowe’en and settled into it. There were new couches and holidays and visitors and movies and books. I’ve been deep in research for a big writing project that’s now transitioning into plotting and draft writing.  I even went to a really big feminist party the day after the inauguration and cried at the sight of the hundreds of thousands of people with me that were standing up to say that they were watching the new administration.

    I even got a new hat.

     

     

    But it all feels very trivial, when turning to news or Facebook is such an onslaught of terrible things.  I found myself crying at work as I came across an article of a breastfeeding 11-month-old that was separated from her mother for a full day because of Trump’s Muslim travel ban.  Each story of adult children just trying to get their elderly parents back home or spouses trying to reunite or refugees that nearly made it onto what were once safe shores has hit me so hard. My Irish in-laws keep asking me what is going on in my country and I am terrified by all the answers that keep coming out of my mouth.

    It is very tempting to go hide in fiction for the next four years.  That is, actually, part of what I’ve been doing to restore myself.  Each night, after we talk at dinner of all the terrible things that have happened each day, I hide on the couch and cover myself in blankets and let myself luxuriate in story telling.  If I close my eyes, will it just go away?

    Unfortunately not, not if I want the world to be a place for Baba, with her double passports and international family.  Not if I want to lift my head and look back at these days and respect myself for not standing by the side and letting others speak out against deep injustice.

    And so.  There is work to do, even if it feels like my efforts accomplish very little.  I saw a tweet recently quoted somewhere that said that if you always wondered how you would have behaved as you read about history, then you’re getting a good chance to know, because whatever it is that you’re doing now is what you would have done then.

    That’s stuck with me – as both a calling and a command.

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • book reviews,  books

    2016: A Year in Books

    Historical Fiction

    • Mozart’s Sister, A.M. Baud
    • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
    • War Brides, Helen Bryan
    • At the Edge of the Orchard, Tracy Chevalier
    • The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende
    • The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, Louise Erdich
    • Belgravia, Julian Fellowes
    • Mozart’s Sister, Rita Charbonnier

    Perhaps it is the events of 2016 that have thrown me into a desire to see the past brought to life, in only the way that historical fiction can. But, looking at the list, I can see that it’s more that some favorite authors put out books this year.  Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, wrote a beautiful novel about a terrible family dysfunction that was haunting and terrible, in the most meaningful sense of the word.  Louise Erdich’s The Master Butcher’s Singing Club puts together the story of a town between World Wars, where the daughter of the town’s drunk returns home and finds an unlikely life among German immigrants.  Isabel Allende, who I loved for her novel The House of Spirits, took on the fortunes of two very different families affected by the Japanese internment camps during World War II.  These were all memorable novels, written by authors that are masters of their craft and genre and they move the reader by reminding us of some of the best parts of being human, even when confronted with the worst of history.

    Speculative Fiction

    In speculative fiction, I spent a year thinking about The Gate to Women’s Country, which is a novel unlike any that I’ve ever read before.  It came to me as a recommendation that I might enjoy and it’s true; it haunted me all year and gave me a lot of food for thought, which is exactly what good speculative fiction should do.  This year also had retreads of Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Johnson’s In Another Life.  Both were worth it.

     

    Mystery & Crime

    • The Second Stage of Grief, Katherine Hayton
    • Broken Harbor, Tana French
    • The Secret Place, Tana French

    Tana French continues to be a favorite writer in crime.  It’s not a genre that I’ve read much of since the days when I shelved books in a mystery section as a volunteer high school student, but I’ve always loved French’s police procedurals for their deep dives into human psychology.  Her newest novel, The Trespasser, came out this year, which I am really looking forward to reading in 2017.

     

     

    Contemporary Fiction

    • Three Weissmans of Westport, Cathleen Shine
    • A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
    • The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout
    • Her Name is Rose, Christine Breen
    • Monkey Bridge, Lin Cao
    • The Taming of Roses with Thorns, Margaret Dilloway

    In contemporary fiction, A Visit from the Goon Squad took the cake, even though I wouldn’t have picked it up without a nudge from a book club.  Egan took on the rock n roll industry, writing a novel of interrelated short stories about the people surrounding an aging record executive.  The experimental nature of the book adds some fun to the story as well, with an entire story told via a Powerpoint slide.  It does actually work.  The Burgess Boys was another favorite, though much of that came from how well Strout managed to peg the New York import’s feelings about New York.  As an aging import myself, I found myself nodding and laughing along with some great passages.

     

    Classics

    • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
    • Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

    I always know that the world is unsettling when I feel a need to reread Pride and Prejudice, which happens at least once every few years.  I’ve spent hours wondering what it is about this particular novel that is so delightful and could probably spend at least a few coffee dates speculating.  I love Austen’s work very much, but Pride and Prejudice is definitely the literary equivalent of your mom’s mac n cheese.  Little Women was a new read for me, though – a novel I’d always meant to get around to and somehow missed.  Although some aspects of the story have aged over the century and a half since it was published, I really understand how it has such a following.  The sequels are on my reading list for the future.

     

    I’ve ended this year with the same regret as last year; I simply wish that I had read more.  I still can’t read with Baba around, because if she sees me reading a book without pictures, she pushes it out of my hands and brings me one of my books to read to her.  And so, if we’re counting board books, my number would triple.  I’ve read five books just today, in fact!  And there is much to admire in such simple story telling.  Some of the books that we read are just beautiful, between the artwork and the storytelling.  They may not be designed for adults, but this adult has really come to love books made for very small children.

    As it is, this is the time for New Year’s Resolutions and, also, a new Goodreads reading challenge.  I have some books that I’ve really been looking forward to on my next-to-read list, like Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria and Elizabeth Strout’s much-talked-about Olive Kitteridge.  I’m halfway through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and have just begun a biography of the Mozart family by Ruth Halliwell.   I’d love some recommendations — what have you read this year that blew your mind?

     

  • art,  books,  storytelling,  writing

    A Little Story

    It is October and I have been writing short stories for most of the past year, among other things. More on that later. But I was reminded the other day of my favorite Hallowe’en story, read by one of my favorite authors, so I thought I would share it with you.

    The world might be dark and scary outside, but I just wanted to remind you that literature can make it even scarier.

    Happy Hallowe’en!

     

  • book reviews,  books

    2015 Reading List

    What a year it has been.  At the beginning of the year, hopeful that motherhood wouldn’t impact my habits too drastically, I set a reading goal of 52 books.  I made it about halfway, with most of my reading being in the time before Baba could grab things out of my hands and knock the books off the shelf.  I came to love magazines this year, for their portability, destructibility (I admit that I underestimated the fascinating power of a crinkling page) and short attention span reads about a world that has become increasingly puzzling.  In the world of magazines, I developed a particular love for Vanity Fair, which deals a lot more substance than I had expected when the issues first started showing up on my doorstep, and The New Yorker, which combines my love of politics, my city and short fiction.

    I also developed a critical appreciation for books targeted at young readers.  While I have read Giraffes Can’t Dance and Five Little Ducks far more times than I would care to, I fell in love with the beautiful artwork and simple storytelling of Neil Gaiman’s Chu’s Day and Chu’s First Day of School.  So has Baba, as it happens, and it makes me smile to see her always pull out my favorite books from her book shelf first.

     

    baba_neil
                      Why read only one at a time?

     

    Well, here’s to longer fiction in 2016.  Still, there were some very memorable reads this year; books that haunted me for months after I finished reading them.  I am still thinking about the gritty beauty of the Congo in The Poisonwood Bible, the beauty of a kind man in The Orchardist, the tension-building effect of Philippa Gregory’s present tense in The Taming of the Queen and so many other ways that the books I’ve read this year have brought imagination and inspiration into my life.

     

    Side_of_paradise

    Classics

    How do you compare a tell-all of flapper-era literary Paris with the gothic tension of one of the world’s classic horror stories?   Throw in the dusty and cold warfare of For Whom the Bell Tolls and the bitter parody of the Ivy Leagues in This Side of Paradise and my classics reading this year couldn’t be more varied.  Ernest Hemingway was my surprise discovery in graduate school.  I had read him in undergrad, of course, but had missed the intense beauty of his dialogue, no matter how many times I was assigned “Hills Like White Elephants.”  For anyone looking to dig in to Hemingway, I’d also recommend The Sun Also Rises or The Snows of Kilimanjaro” for a shorter introduction to his style.

    sisters-of-heart-and-snow

    Fiction

    The theme of my fiction reading was apparently setting; each of these books left me with such a distinct sense of place that the title is enough to cast me instantly back into the mood of the book.  A Girl with a Pearl Earring was actually my third or fourth reading, because I love the lush and delicate world that Chevalier paints in her coming-of-age story.  The Orchardist is a book that I have thought about all year long, for both the gritty independence and originality of its characters and the beauty of its setting.  I often wonder, as I read adult fiction, what a book would be like if none of the characters had romantic attachments to each other.  What peaks of creativity could we reach if we abandoned the central narrative of so much of our art and fiction?  The Orchardist answers that, while exploring the love of parenthood and friendship, in a truly thought-provoking narrative.

    Speculative Fictionstation11

    • No Harm Can Come to a Good Man, James Smythe
    • Station Eleven, Emily St. Mandel
    • Starfarers (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
    • Transition (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
    • Metaphase (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
    • Nautilus (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre

    Science fiction took up a larger portion of my reading this year than it usually does, largely because I was swept into the imaginative world of Vonda MacIntyre’s Starfarer’s Quartet.  I’m a bit of a sucker for the idea of space ships that can grow their own environments, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series.  Starfarer reminded me of that, with spaceships that were as much characters of the story as the story itself.   Emily St. Mandel’s Station Eleven is beautifully unique work of fiction, that felt like The Stand retold by artists and sold as literary fiction, while James Smythe’s No Harm Can Come to a Good Man thoughtfully questions our growing relationship and trust of analytic technologies and search engines.

    Now, in the beginning of January, I’m midway through Maynard Solomon’s tome-like biography Mozart and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  It’s been a tough month so far, with a lot of stress, and I admit that I’ve been looking for something lighter.  I’m eagerly awaiting the launch of Julie Christine Johnson’s In Another Life in February, but can anyone recommend something smart and light to keep me busy until then?

     

  • books,  culture,  writing

    Where Do You Buy E-books?

    When I moved in to my neighborhood seven years ago, there were three independent book stores, which fell like dominoes that year.  Then Borders Books & Music by my office turned into a bank, while my beloved Strand Annex notified its loyal customers that it was combining with its parent store uptown. The loss of the Strand Annex really hurt, because I was in the habit of spending my lunch hours browsing through stack after stack of stories.  Some of my most memorable books came off the dollar pile there — short story collections from the 50s, post-apocalyptic survival novels, books recording art exhibitions long since forgotten.

    Browsing seems like a lost art now, since it is difficult for me to drop into a nearby book store, even though I live in one of the most populated places on the planet. Every New Yorker knows that the song goes “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” so I admit a great anxiety for the future of book stores everywhere.

    Just yesterday, I got into the old discussion about paper books versus e-books.  I read both, depending on what’s at hand, but increasingly, it is digital books that available.  I do still order books to be shipped to me, from time to time, when the book is something special, or illustrations are an important part of the text.  But with shipping fees being what they are and the nearest book store is an out of the way forty-minute drive,  digital books are accessible books.

    And yet, I’m invested in publishing and writing remaining a profitable industry.  While Amazon is notoriously exploitative of writers and publishers, I bought into their system for convenience when I bought my first Kindle. But I’ve finally reached the moment where my conscience won’t allow for it any more.  I decided I wanted to support a real book store, a place where people can go and look and feel and touch books. Some of my best memories as a teenager happened while browsing the shelves of Barnes & Noble in a mall that is now closed and gone, and I want the next generation to have that experience too.

    I finally gave into my want-not-need longing for a modern e-reader.  I bought a Nook, thinking that at least my new book purchases would support Barnes & Noble — an actual brick and mortar book store as well as a company that has fairer practices for publishers.  Then I discovered that you cannot download ebooks that you purchase through their store; they will deliver them to your Nook, but you cannot download them anywhere else, including your computer. If you later decide that you wish to use a Kindle or a laptop or a tablet that is not from Barnes & Noble to read your purchases, then you’re out of luck.  If Barnes & Noble stops selling the Nook, again, you’re out of luck. This is not purchasing books — this is borrowing them at full price.

    Although my profession makes me think more about technological disaster than most people, it’s not crazy to be suspicious of the perils of allowing your bookseller to store all your books for you. While painstakingly downloading my library from Amazon (book by book, as Amazon provides no other method), I’ve repeatedly hit the message that the title I want to download isn’t available.  Once, while on a downloading frenzy, I was even logged out of my account.  I’m sure that was accidental…or am I?

    I’m not looking to pirate my books.  I’m simply interested in being able to transfer my property between any e-reader that I choose.  I want all of my books, no matter where I buy them, to work on the same device.  I finally got this worked out with my current set of e-books after fiddling with removing DRM for a few days so that I could put my Amazon purchased e-books on my Nook.   (This method has worked well for me.)

    I am admittedly the sort of person who, repeatedly and willingly, makes her life more difficult for the nebulous sake of principles. I want authors and publishing houses to be paid fairly. I want to support book sellers. I want to also own the books that I buy. This doesn’t seem like such a strange desire.   So, what to do?  How do I buy e-books?

    After doing a lot of reading, I’ve settled on a combination of direct purchases from publishers that offer DRM-free books and using Kobo to purchase books that are not offered in a DRM-free format.  Buying DRM-free books directly from the publisher has its obvious advantages, while Kobo is an online marketplace that facilitates e-book sales for independent book stores. If you’re inclined the way I am, you’ll do your shopping through your favorite book store and, presuming they’re a Kobo affiliate, follow their links for your purchase so that some of your money goes back to the little guys.  You can find a list of Kobo affiliated book stores here.

    Kobo delivers its books in .epub format, which can be read in Adobe Digital Editions.  As a Linux user, I’ve set it up Calibre to scan for .epub books and automatically remove the DRM.  I have to manually transfer new books to my Nook (which Calibre makes simple), but I get a a DRM-free copy for my efforts.  If I ever decide to buy a different e-reader after the Nook, all of my purchases will transfer to it without hassle.  Its a little more work, but let’s me sleep a little better at night.

    I think what we will see as the e-book market matures are more marketplaces like Amazon Kindle Unlimited, where book are rented like DVDs. But what will that mean for authors? Will they see royalties for every rental? Or will it become even harder to make a living as a writer?  With the death of brick-and-mortar book stores and decreasing funding for local libraries, how will the next generation learn to love books the way that we do?

  • books,  dreams,  family,  introspection,  writing

    The Top Shelf

    This post was written for the Cherished Blogfest, which invites the writer to write a short post about a cherished object.  See the other participants and discover some new blogs!

    Some of my Grandmother's books.
    Some of my Grandmother’s books.

    My mother arrived outside my Queens apartment, the trunk of her aqua Hyundai Accent packed to the brim with books. But these were not ordinary books.  These were the classics, in cheap hardback covers, that my grandmother had ordered through the mail, one at a time as she could afford them. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Twain formed the bulk of the horde, with one-off novels from other authors like Dickens and Mitchell and Charlotte Bronte.   I’d stared at their gilted bindings most of my childhood, just waiting for the day when I would be able to read and truly appreciate them, instead of having to stop every paragraph or two to look up words I didn’t yet know.  (Grapes of Wrath…my twelve-year-old self is still intimidated by you.)  And now, my mother was giving them to me.

    I grew up in the kind of place where people left their stolen shopping carts on the sidewalk and radios blared staticky commercials late into the night.  The first apartment that we lived in when we moved back to the States had to be abandoned when used syringes were found at the playground and prostitutes were discovered working out of the basement storage units, a few short feet from where I did our family’s laundry.  When we moved out, our apartment was taken over by the local neighborhood watch as a command station.  Whenever I think of that place, I still imagine their intent faces peering out the same square window that once was my entire view of the world.

    The neighborhood that we moved to was better.  It was another long street of apartment complexes, but  the top of the street bled off into an estate of modest houses.  At the time, I thought the people that lived up there were rich beyond measure, because they had private walls and a yard, and I used to roam those streets for hours at a time, dreaming of what it must be like to live in such opulent wealth.  At Christmas time and Hallowe’en, I would jealously dream while I admired the beauty of their decorations.  I imagined refinement and culture behind those closed doors, then returned home to the sticky shared entrances of the apartment buildings where we lived and to the neighborhood children that responded quickly and viciously to any sign of studiousness.

    And yet, books were my favorite thing.

    I couldn’t escape my thrift-shop clothes or the skin that couldn’t fit in, but in the pages of books, I could learn to be anyone.  I studied them hungrily, looking for a the clues on how to behave to get myself to a place where I could walk down the street without the harassment of men twice my age.  My grandmother’s books seemed like the key to a future of wealth and culture, an entree into neighborhoods that were beautiful and safe. Somehow, I knew that the people that lived in those houses had all read Hemingway.

    I never found the key to the secrets that I was looking for, but all that reading paid off; I landed in a high school program that put me in the same classroom as the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers.  It was what I had always wanted, wasn’t it?  And yet, I discovered that I didn’t feel at home there, among so much casual wealth.  While their parents took them to private lessons and bought them cars for SAT performance, I juggled an extraordinary academic load with my after-school and weekend jobs. One of my first boyfriends belonged to a family that kept horses, who I met in the same year that our cat died after falling off our 9th floor balcony. When it became obvious that my new school friends were afraid to go to my house, I avoided theirs, because I felt like I was selling out my childhood friends.

    I still feel bad about this.  Can anyone recommend someone to fix this?
    I still feel bad about this. Can anyone recommend someone to fix this?
    I no longer belonged at home or at school, and the consolation was fiction.  I tried again with my grandmother’s books, but when I broke the binding of Gone with the Wind as I neared the final pages, I became too afraid to touch any of the other books in the collection.  They were too delicate for my teenaged hands, so I waited until my mother gave them to me as an adult to try reading them again.  Now I carefully carry them in my commuter bag, cherishing them for the family history that they hold.  In a world where books are increasingly less tangible, they are a luxury, a treasure that can be touched and smelled and held.

    Published in the 50s and 60s, their typeface and binding instantly throws me back in time, to a place before cell phones and cable TV and Internet speed.  I envision my family — a well-educated and argumentative bunch — reading these books as they sprawled over couches and floors.  I imagine my mother as a young woman, inscribing her name inside the cover of each book with a blue ballpoint pen. She wrote the date — 1977.  Now that they are mine, I wonder if I should write my name too.

    Some Reviews from The Top Shelf:

    Dracula
    A Moveable Feast
    For Whom the Bell Tolls

  • book reviews,  books

    Reading List 2014

    This year I started carrying a Bullet Journal to keep myself organized.  On the third page of my journal is a page where I proudly wrote the words “Reading List” back in the beginning of January, since I realized that I’m more or less hopeless at remembering to keep my Goodreads profile up to date.  It turns out that I’m not so great at remembering that I have a reading list in my Bullet Journal either.  Nonetheless, here’s a somewhat informed list of the year’s reading.

    General Fiction

    The-Round-HouseThe Paris Wife by Paula McLain
    The Round House by Louise Erdrich
    Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
    Mozart’s Sister by Nancy Moser
    The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass
    The Bastard by John Jakes
    Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
    Love Medicine (PS) by Louse Erdrich
    The Children of Liberty by Paulina Simons
    Faithful Place by Tana French

    There were a few novels in this section that really struck me this year, but the author that I couldn’t get enough of was Louise Erdrich.  This is partially her subject matter, which is always centered around Native American themes.  Not being particularly knowledgeable about contemporary Native American issues and culture, I find her books both educational and compelling for the vivid and interesting world that she creates.  She so honestly represents the pressure of maintaining a traditional culture while integrating into modern American life, while providing an authentic window into a subculture of America that is so poorly represented by our popular culture.  Neither The Round House nor Love Medicine (PS) are books that I am going to forget for a very long time, both for their story lines and for what they were able to teach me about my own country and its history and politics.

    Tana French’s Faithful Place is another novel that will stick with me.  Focused on a desperate and hopeless neighborhood in inner-city Dublin during the worst of the late 20th century economic recession, French does her usual magic with deeply character driven murder mysteries.  On top of the socioeconomic backdrop, French provided such an accurate portrayal of what being a child of an alcoholic is like that there were times I had to step away from the novel to shake off my own memories.  I’m not generally a crime reader, but I’ll never pass up a French novel.  She’ll definitely be on my list for 2015.

    Likewise, I was really pleased by Julia Glass’s The Widower’s Tale, which tells the story of a retired father who is renegotiating his relationships to his community and children.  It was an absolutely beautiful page-turning story, with just enough tongue-in-cheek New England humor to keep the story light during its darkest points.  I look forward to reading more of Glass’s work in the future.  The Widower’s Tale was as beautifully crafted as it was enjoyable.

     

    Classics

    Hemingwaysun1

    The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
    The Call of the Wild by Jack London
    Mathilda by Mary Shelley
    As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
    The Floating Opera by John Barth
    The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos
    Dracula by Bram Stoker
    The Awakening by Kate Chopin
    Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
    Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
    The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James
    Maggie, A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

    The majority of this section was read for classwork, though certainly not all of it.  This was a second read of As I Lay Dying and Dracula, as well as my first successful complete read of The Call of the Wild.  Although I enjoyed Dracula just as much as a teenager as I did this year, I did not understand  Faulkner or London on my first readings.  This year, I really appreciated the dark humor of As I Lay Dying and the socialistic underpinnings of The Call of the Wild in a way that I completely missed as a younger reader.

    My real love of this section, however, was Ernest Hemingway, who I also read as a teenager and couldn’t understand what the fuss was about.  The Sun Also Rises is a beautiful novel in many ways, but what really struck me was Hemingway’s sense of dialog, which feels both stylized to the time period and extremely realistic.  Reading Jack London and Hemingway together was particularly enjoyable — London is so obviously an influence on Hemingway that reading London gave me a different appreciation of what Hemingway’s thinking might have been as he wrote.  I can only imagine what might have happened if Hemingway and London had ever been in a room together, but I’m certain that it would have been strikingly manly.  Both have a no-nonsense terseness to their writing styles, though I admit that I prefer Hemingway’s often painfully honest emotionalism over London’s brutality.  I’m looking forward to more Hemingway over the coming year.

    Essays/Nonfiction

    letsexplorediabetesLet’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
    Three Minus One: Stories of Parents’ Loss and Grief, Edited by Sean Hanish
    Beethoven by George Alexander Fischer
    How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis

    I have a good friend that is a huge fan of David Sedaris’s work, so I’m only surprised that it’s taken me so long to pick up one of his books.  Although I still have no idea why the book is named the way it is, despite having watched an interview in which he was asked that precise question, I laughed for nearly the entire read and have passed the book along to multiple people since reading it.  Sedaris is a master of situational comedy and you can’t help but wonder what a day in his life must be like, given some of the situations that he describes as truth.  It’s a book filled with lunatic moments, in which he blends his own sense of the absurd with a deep love of the quirks of the people that he meets.

    I read Three Minus One in the same week as Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.  They could not be more different — Three Minus One is a compilation of stories about miscarriage and stillbirth, while the most serious that Sedaris gets is to wonder at his relationship with his father.  Ironically, I was reading it when I took the three pregnancy tests that confirmed that we were now taking our own chances with the pregnancy game.  Out of a certain sense of superstitiousness, I wondered if I should stop reading the book, but found that I couldn’t because while it was a compilation of sad stories, it was also a compilation of stories about the strength of the bond between parents and their children.  Ultimately, it is a celebration of love, through the saddest lens that I can imagine.  Every day that my child has grown, I’ve thought about those stories and been inspired by the strength in them to be a little braver and love a little more.

    Fantasy

    A Dance with Dragons hb f

    Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
    A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

    I first came across Mary Robinette Kowal through her blog, but when I learned that she had written fantasy novels in an Austen-like universe, that was an irresistable hook.  Taking on Austen’s world is a formidable task — so many have done it that it’s difficult to bring something fresh to the table.  Yet Kowal brought magic into the equation, which made it a fun and light-hearted read that was both authentic and pleasing. The other books in the series are certain to show up on my lists in the future.

    Naturally, after last  year’s delving into the Game of Thrones universe, I had to finish off what was written of the Song of Ice and Fire series.  I’ve now joined the hordes of Martin fans that are eagerly awaiting the next installment of this series, particularly given the cliffhanger ending.  I have yet to be disappointed by the rich world of intrigue that he creates — I only want more, more more.   Yet I’m surprised to see that this section has so few books in it this year — perhaps my readers could give me some recommendations?

    Previous Reading Lists

    2013

     

  • books

    Verisimilitude

    Henry-JamesIt must be admitted that good novels are somewhat compromised by bad ones, and that the field, at large, suffers discredit from overcrowding.
    — Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

    It is the beginning of a new semester of my graduate program in Creative Writing and I came across this quote as I began the reading for my American Naturalism literature class.  It seemed like he could have written it today about today’s conversation about writing and self-publishing.

    There are a lot of books being published today.  Amazon bears a responsibility for that — it is now easier than ever for an author to share their work with an audience.  I was sitting in a train station on Friday afternoon, shamelessly eavesdropping on a young woman’s conversation, where she explained to her companion that she had published a book and sold five copies of it — she was certain that it was all to her parents’ friends, but she was thrilled nonetheless.  Five people had purchased her work, but this was as big of a goal as she had for herself.  For perhaps the first time, we have a broad amateur market with easy access to an audience.  We sell ebooks for a dollar — sometimes even less, to a global marketplace that has learned to expect poor editing for a cheaper price.  I’ve heard others tell me that they won’t pay more than three dollars for a book, no matter who the author is.

    Wouldn’t Henry James be delighted at such sentiments?

    There have always been vanity presses.  Even Jane Austen’s family volunteered to offset the publishing costs of her first novels.  Many, many well-polished and mature manuscripts still face failure at the traditional publishing houses, who are now owned by fewer companies than they ever have been.  As with most of the cultural products in our world, our choices are becoming simultaneously fewer and greater at the same time — there are fewer people professionally producing unique books, but many more amateurs with the ability to bring us their creative vision.  We’ve seen the same experience with music, as Youtube and independent music distributors like Jamendo, Bandcamp and others have enabled more musicians than ever to share their art with the world.  (Read more.)

    Being the populist that I am, I can’t help but appreciate that it’s easier than ever for  creative art to find its way in the world.  I want the truly creative artist to not be dependent on taste monitors at publishing houses and recording studios deciding what will be financially viable for them and making that available to us as a culture.  We’ve seen what that creates with the music stations of the United States, which play a increasingly small selection of songs.  Much of what gets published is published with the same idea — repeat the same formula that’s already out there, because it’s likely to win you money.  Find an author that was an amazing success, then publish more of her work.  Discover authors who are already selling, who already have their cross-marketed platform, who have already been successful — it’s a significantly less risky strategy than taking a chance on someone that no one has ever heard of.

    I can’t really even blame the publishers for these decisions, when I hear readers say that they won’t pay more than three dollars for a book.  You have to sell a lot of copies of that book before you can pay your staff. And with the market prices now starting to be driven by retailers like Amazon, who are demanding to set the price of books even lower, it’s become more difficult than ever to stay in business as a publisher.  We may well see a market entirely created by the “amateurs” soon if giants like Amazon manage to make professional publishing houses unprofitable.

    What would Henry James think of that?

    I have to admit that there have been times in my writing life, when I am frustrated with the work that I am doing, where it becomes impossible to see the point of it all. This is in part because of how much work there is out there — even this blog often feels like I am writing into the abyss.  If audience is the goal, then that is an increasingly difficult thing to achieve when there are so many different places for audiences to go. We could argue about an increasingly short attention span as well — I know far too many people who won’t even read beyond the title of an article on Facebook.  The web has its own share of the guilt — so many things that are produced for the Internet are for link capital and provide very little new content.  If I had a dollar for every article that begins, ‘You Won’t Believe…” or “10 Things That….”, I would not be worried about some day trying to make some money off of my writing.

    I admit that I have a certain fondness for Henry James.  He was a modernist, in a changing era.  He was writing about psychology and feminism, as he watched the traditional gender roles that he grew up with change as his world crossed over into the 20th century. Although his work has aged over the last century, his books still feel modern — and you get the sense of a man trying to understand the people around him.  Later in “The Art of Fiction,” James writes that the novel, unlike other literary forms, should compete with real life — that it should engage in a type of trompe l’oeil verisimilitude. I like that idea a lot, this idea that literature should struggle to feel real.  Even when the characters are in fantastical situations, they should feel real and true.  If I could just wrangle my characters into that, then I could be happy enough, published or not.

     

  • books

    Do You Want to Read a Book a Week?

    I read a Huffington Post article this week by Julien Smith on the subject of reading fifty-two books in a year. I thought that much of his advice was practical and sound — chop your reading up into manageable doses and do it daily, preferably early in the day before other things take over.  This is good advice for any habit – it’s precisely what writers are told to do if we want to be serious about our writing.  Even something enjoyable becomes very easy to procrastinate in the face of work and life pressures.  I really am into this book, but I need to also go to the post office, pay my bills, take care of the cat or the kid or the spouse.  Etc., etc.  By making reading your first priority, you make certain it happens before the rest of your life can take over. While I laughed at Smith’s comment that he would start his day by going to a coffee shop and reading his daily forty pages — no matter how long it took — because I know very few people with that kind of luxury in their mornings, I have to admit that his approach is sound.

    Good advice.  Life is all about choices.

    I particularly liked what Julien Smith had to say on his own blog about why you should want to read so widely.  He writes that:

    The other thing is that books contain pretty much all the knowledge and wisdom in the whole world– not just for today, but for all of history. It’s in an imperfect form right now, what with books being out of print and all the problems of limited distribution, etc., but over time, that’ll be solved. So I see books as direct conduits to the past, and the most reliable way that we have to receive important information from other people, living or dead.

    In the colonial days of the U.S., when there were no such things as painters, architects and doctors, if you needed to know how to do one of those things, you ordered a book from Europe.  Then you waited for months for your book to arrive on a boat, if you were lucky.  Then you tried to turn the knowledge from the book into your new house.  One of the most successful people at this was Thomas Jefferson, who is considered one of the first architects in the U.S.

    He built Monticello, from knowledge he picked up entirely in books.

    westfront_pond

    Well played, Tom, well played.

    That has always been the magic of books for me, because I am so curious about so many different things.  No matter what the topic, you can go find a book to tell you about it, which is much easier than finding someone with accurate knowledge that is also willing to teach.  If you read multiple genres, even fiction genres, you’ll pick up all sorts of bits of knowledge about how the world works.  You’ll also develop a reputation for being smart, when you’re just repeating things that you read in books. Your prowess at Jeopardy will be the toast of the neighborhood, too.

    At ten weeks into the year, I have six novels under my belt and a good start on Louise Eldrich’s Love Medicine, P.S.  One of them was George R. R. Martin, which directly countermand’s Smith’s suggestion to cheat.  I have to disagree with him — trying to read a book every single week means eliminating longer works from your selection.  If I were to take his challenge, I would rework it from reading a book a week to reading something every day off the Internet. Spend time reading widely, taking in different types of books and knowledge.  The world is big and the time in which we have to know it is limited…but books sure do help a lot.

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