Reading

Thanks for reading (and give books!)

Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life–wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?

That oft-quoted passage from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is taped to my office door. It’s what came to mind as I sat down today to write about what I’m grateful for, because I figured that would be a wildly original thing to do on Thanksgiving morning (wink wink nudge nudge). Now, my gratitude goes first, in heaping, belt-busting proportions—appropriate for today, no?—to the people in my life: the family and friends without whom this world would be impossible to navigate and comprehend. I could write and write and write and never get to the bottom of what I owe to them for the love, support, trust, and boundless joy they have given to me over the years. Then I am grateful for shelter, for health, for employment; the list, and its attendant worry and guilt for those who do not have these, has already begun to spiral in my mind. So before I head to the kitchen to devil some eggs and peel apples and get casserol-y with it, I thought I’d narrow down this post and give thanks for one thing: reading.

Mom likes to tell the story of how I surprised her by reading a note aloud when I was around 3 or 4 years old. Startled, she said, “I didn’t know you could read,” and I shrugged my tot shoulders and said, “Yeah.” In some ways, that’s how reading still feels to me: like something I have always known how to do. Yet it also stands out as one of the saving graces of my life, the act to which I have turned again and again to find solace, to escape, to expand and enrich my mind. Reading has become simultaneously the most ordinary and the most wildly magic habit of my life.

My parents read to me from a very early age. Some of my earliest memories are about those stories and the little stiff Golden Books themselves; the Poky Little Puppy stands out the most. Once I could read on my own, I never stopped. In memory I clump together favorites: Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Ralph Mouse books, and then everything Judy Blume wrote. Scott O’Dell’s The Island of the Blue Dolphins. In high school, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. At the same time, I also loved the Modesty Blaise spy thrillers. And the habit continued, broadened, deepened. Nowadays, I tend to favor fiction, both novels and short stories, but I am also a fan of poetry, narrative nonfiction, and graphic narratives. A good story for me often has many qualities, but I am most drawn to those that have deeply complex, original characters in whom I am absolutely invested. As I often tell my creative writing students, “Come on, break my heart.” I want to feel something at the end, to recognize a change, to glimpse some aspect of the human condition. If I’m weeping at 3 a.m. when I finally close the cover, success! I also like dark humor, mesmerizing language, and experimental voices. I’m still a sucker for a good mystery.

I have no doubt that my life is different because I became a reader. It’s absolutely tied to my writing experience. The first time I tried to write a short story, an embarrassing foray full of clever witticisms and capital-S Symbolism, my instructor nonetheless praised it (bless her). I remember her comment: Have you written fiction before? The answer was heck no, but guess what I had done? Read. Story after story after story, whose rhythms and shapes I had absorbed so fully that I could intuit my way from beginning to end. This habit is essential for writers. What I know now is that I should be reading twice as much as I am.

Beyond the writing, though, the reason I am most grateful to reading is because of how it has taught me to see once I pull my face out of the book. What Lamott says about how an author makes us pay attention: yes. Reading champions the imagination and induces escape but it is also interactive. When we read a writer’s description, we translate the words into images that spring forth onto our mental screens– the wonderful mind’s eye. We see the characters; they become ours. We puzzle out plot cues, and we look for more. We worry for characters enmeshed in those plots. We recognize their flaws and we follow and believe in them nonetheless. We are not passive; we are active participants in the world of the story.

For me, that work of reading translates once we look up and find ourselves in this world. We are not passive; we are active. We take our lessons of reading and apply them. We learn to read our circumstances. We try to read others, scrutinizing the small details for meaning. We puzzle and wonder and worry, and this kind of reading, I am convinced, makes our lives richer.

In the midst of this holiday season, if you partake in the shopping frenzy, I urge you to give books. To everyone. Start at the baby shower. Birthdays. Give to schools that need them. Any day, well into adulthood. Get ’em at indie stores; pass ’em along used. My in-laws, now in their 70s, give me such hope in this respect: Now that they have more time, they have turned to books, reading the stories on the page from which famous movies have come.

Read to your kids. Get kids reading. Volunteer at after-school programs. Be goofy and wild in your passion for it, really mean it. I still read aloud—to college students. And you better believe their eyes still light up.

I’m grateful that mine still do, too.

Wishing everyone love, peace, warmth, shelter, health, and good cheer.

BC

This is your brain on summer

July, I hardly knew ye.

I’m stunned as usual at how summer is flying right on past the horizon without pausing to give me so much as the finger. Speaking of flying (and birds): A hawk — a hawk — totally landed on the hood of my parked car today. It set off the auto light in the carport, and then sat there for a couple minutes, just checking out the yard.  TW and I just gawped at it with a Keanu-like Whoa. And then, I laughed, because It reminded me of this:

Writing here at a steady clip, I suppose. I’m making progress but am feeling suddenly shy and superstitious about bringing attention to the whole thing, so I’ll just say that I’m working and I’m happy about it. Otherwise, I am being a zealous hermit. My big excursions include walking around the neighborhood or along the river path with a hat pulled low over my eyes. In one of these moody jaunts, I coined a little phrase that rather amuses me: Writers: We put the F-U in Fun.

I do have a little happy news from my small writing world: I got a story, titled “When Are You Coming Home?”, accepted for publication in Blackbird, and I think it will be out this fall. Yay. I also have two readings on the docket: one in October at the Auburn Writers Conference and one in March at the University of Alabama-Birmingham for the UAB Writers Series. I’m delighted to be part of both.

I’ve also been reading. I’ve been for weeks intending to document my reading from the spring semester and this summer, and now I fear the details are already fading. I had intended also to write capsule reviews for each (ha), but now I would just like to get them down before they, too, fly away. Not all of these are perfect books, stories, or essays (what books are? And eek, I have got to get some more poetry in my diet). But I took something away from all of them, and as I scan the list I would give a “recommend” or a “highly recommend” to all. (The starred book-length ones are those that stand out to me, that really captured or moved me, left me a bit haunted or stunned; I think if you read any of those stories you’ll be a happy — or at least interested –camper.)

Spring (mainly short fiction and essays)

  • Selected essays from The Best American Travel Writing 2010, Ed. Bill Buford
  • Stories from The Best American Short Stories2010, Ed.  Richard Russo: “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” by Steve Almond; “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s No Place to Go” by Danielle Evans; “Further Interpretations of Real Life Events” by Kevin Moffett;  “All Boy” by Lori Ostlund;  “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach” by Karen Russell; “Safari” by Jennifer Egan; “The Valetudinarian” by Joshua Ferris; “Painted Ship, Painted Ocean” by Rebecca Makkai; “PS” by Jill Mccorkle; “The Laugh” by Téa Obreht; “The Ascent” by Ron Rash; and “Raw Water” by Wells Tower
  • From The Contemporary American Short Story, Eds. Nguyen and Shreve. Sherman Alexie, “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock”; Margaret Atwood, “Happy Endings”; Donald Barthelme, “The School”; Richard Bausch, “The Man Who Knew Belle Star”; Gina Berriault, “The Birthday Party”; Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”; John Cheever, “The Swimmer”; Junot Díaz, “Fiesta, 1980”; Andre Dubus, “The Fat Girl”; Stuart Dybek, “Pet Milk”; Louise Erdrich, “The Red Convertible”; Carolyn Ferrell, “Proper Library”; Richard Ford, “Communist”; Denis Johnson, “Emergency”; Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”; Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Third and Final Continent”; Andrea Lee, “Brothers and Sisters Around the World”; Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”; James Alan McPherson, “Of Cabbages and Kings”; Bobbie Ann Mason, “Shiloh”; Alice Munro, “The Turkey Season”; Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”; Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”; Flannery O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge”; Grace Paley, “Wants”; Mark Richard, “Strays”; George Saunders, “My Flamboyant Grandson”; John Updike, “Here Come the Maples”; Helena Maria Viramontes, “The Moths”; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “Harrison Bergeron”; Alice Walker, “Everyday Use”; Tobias Wolff, “The Rich Brother”

Summer

  • Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones.*
  • The Realm of Hungry Spirits by Lorraine López.*
  • Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout*
  • A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Going Away Shoes: Stories by Jill McCorkle
  • Life Class by Pat Barker*
  • Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
  • Once the Shore: Stories by Paul Yoon*
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides*
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel*
  • A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan*
  • A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White
  • Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith*
  • Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
  • Trash by Dorothy Allison
  • Zoli by Colum McCann*
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro
  • On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan*

ps I started Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, and I gave it to page 100 — I really did — but it just didn’t win me over. I also started Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which is good, but dark in a way I couldn’t deal with right now, so I will return to it another day.

A love letter to the short story

Hey Short Story:

(I’d address you as “Dear” but “Hey” apparently is the American greeting of choice these days. You know, it’s sort of like, what-evs.)

This kind of comes out of the blue, I know. You might have wondered where I ran off to (although, maybe not, since you’re inanimate and all). Anyhoo, after our years-long love affair, I took a turn into Novelandia, then detoured off into Academiaville, found in the middle of the DeepSouthistan. But I hope you know that I never really forgot you. I didn’t abandon you as many have, adopting the novel as the form for “serious” writers, as though length equals depth, even as you plod on as the workhorse of myriad writing workshops. Not me. It’s true that I love novels, and films, too, anything that tells a story. But I find myself turning to you again and again, as a reader and writer. Why is that? What is this hold that you have on me, Short Story?

You’ve been especially on my mind these past few weeks as I teach a contemporary short fiction class. It’s all story, all the time, a kind of language immersion — REPETE, S’IL VOUS PLAIT, AVEC MOI– and boy howdy are the students tired. But I think they’re starting to see, as I do, all of the worlds and beauty and mysteries that you contain in your tiny, ever-evolving body, how you twist, contract, expand, fragment, and still somehow come together in the end, like origami or animal balloons or a math proof (or none of those things). You’re pretty fearless, now that I think about it. I admire your chutzpah, Short Story.

The point, if I have one, is that I feel that I owe you a declaration: I love you, Short Story. This isn’t a drunk dial, either. I’m perfectly sober, perfectly clear-eyed. I love you like I love the sky: for your seemingly endless permutations, for your sly ability to surprise after all these years, for your moments, those small, fragile turns that haunt and move me in incalculable ways.  How do you do that? You’re a mystery, I tell you. It keeps me coming back. In short, Short Story, you’re fabulous. You’re the one I’ll never get over.

Face in books

Today, I’m jotting down what I’ve read thus far in 2010 as we careen right over the hump into the second half of it. I’m not going to annotate for now, just list; perhaps I’ll come back later and amplify thoughts on individual pieces. I read a lot to prepare for teaching, but I’ve been on a bit of a tear of pleasure-reading since May (meaning, I suppose, reading without a pencil in hand). Honestly, I recommend all of these. Here goes:

January

  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  • Homicide Survivors Picnic by Lorraine Lopez

January-May

  • Maus I & II by Art Spiegelman
  • Hiroshima by John Hersey
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa
  • Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
  • In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” by Richard Bausch
  • “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern
  • “The Third and Final Continent” by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Brownies” by ZZ Packer
  • “My Flamboyant Grandson” by George Saunders
  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  • Brownsville by Oscar Casares
  • The Gifted Gabaldon Sisters by Lorraine Lopez
  • The Latin Deli by Judith Ortiz Cofer
  • Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia
  • Select chapters from Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldua
  • Select essays from An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on their Poor and Working Class Roots, ed. Lorraine Lopez
  • The Truth Book by Joy Castro
  • “In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd” by Ana Menendez
  • Poems from A Question of Gravity and Light by Blas Falconer
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents by Julia Alvarez
  • “Homecoming” by Julia Alvarez
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

May-present

  • Open Secrets by Alice Munro
  • Negotiating the Dead by Margaret Atwood
  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  • Home by Marilynne Robinson
  • Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
  • Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
  • Bone Key Elegies by Danielle Sellers
  • Temper by Beth Bachmann
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Select chapters of Method and Madness by Alice LaPlante
  • Falling Man by Don Delillo
  • That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

In progress

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (150 in, only 650 to go!)

On list next (hurry, hurry, before school prep starts!)

  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Attention Please Now by Matthew Pitt
  • From the Hilltop by Toni Jensen
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout