Category Archives: books

Follow through

Finishing books that I abandoned after reading 100 or so pages is having a curiously strong impact on my sense of self. Who’d have thunk? It’s empowering! Since the New Year, I’ve completed a handful of books that, absent the #theunreadshelfproject (Instagram), I might never have finished.

With that in mind, I’d like to experiment with follow through here.

This is me: tomorrow I’ll post about unreliable narrators. Then: silence.

I may then write about the topic privately; I may not. But the point is — here there’s a hanging intention, a risk left unmet.

They are often tricky topics about race or my writing or both. I get nervous talking about my novel as if to do so is to jinx it or, almost as bad, to publicly shame myself for not being done yet.

Because some planned posts involve historic references and/or nuanced ideas about ownership of stories, I can’t bang them out the normal way. “The weather’s this. Patchwork is that.” I need time. And courage.

But, the posts don’t have to be perfect, either. The ideas don’t need to be fully fleshed out. And, though this is not best practice, I don’t even have to include all the necessary attributions at the time of publication. This isn’t scholarship, after all.

I’ve already had the experience of readers giving me important clarifications or details. And encouragement. Why wouldn’t I keep availing myself of that?

So deep breath.

Austin Kleon, from “Steal Like An Artist” speaks to this.

Jude Hill models this day in and day out. One way of looking at my intention here is that I want to apply a spiritcloth approach to historic fiction. In so doing, I hope to exemplify another of Kleon’s big ideas (one that is often misunderstood) which is to say that “Stealing like an Artist” means trying to think like people we admire. It doesn’t mean trying to copy what they make (although he attempts to normalize that as well, noting that all artists learn by copying and if you want to be good copy, not one, but many).

Well, this turned into a little Kleon book review which was not my intention!

Bye!

PS We got more than a foot of snow and a fourth nor’easter is on the way. Honestly, as long as K is not in Asia (which he was for the first two), I don’t care.

Hold the sugar

This pink t-shirt emblazoned with a pithy statement supports The Slave Dwelling Project. Don’t you love getting bling for your contributions? I do. Or maybe this was a straight out purchase. I don’t remember. In any case, this is a particularly good cause, one offering experiences like the one I had with the group in Medford, Mass. in 2014 (posted about here).

Revealingly, when I looked for the shirt this morning I mis-remembered the statement as, “I like my history Black with a little bit of sugar.” Hmmmm. Probably accurate, though my reading list would suggest otherwise (PS, I finally finished all 500+ pages of “The Warmth of Other Suns”).

I love it when friends challenge me. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, a FB friend from high school pointed out two important facts: 1) the number of school shootings being reported by Everytown for Gun Safety is highly inflated, counting, for instance, a suicide in the parking lot of a school that’d been closed for seven months and the accidental discharge of a weapon in a man’s glove box in a school parking lot (no one was hurt), and 2) there are more gun laws in areas with high numbers of POC (which is to say, whites are scared shitless of black people carrying weapons).

Article about Everytown’s inflated numbers here.

Atlantic article about race and gun laws here.

Neither of these points, while well-taken, change my view that Americans are in urgent need of sensible gun regulations.

The non-inflated number of school shootings in the first seven weeks of 2018, by the way, is FIVE. Isn’t that shocking enough?

Meanwhile on a more personal front, the list of items I cannot find is getting annoying. I located the notebook from writing class, but still can’t find my earbuds (I wore them yesterday) or the external hard drive that I back my manuscript up on (I’ll save to a thumb drive ’til I locate it, but really?). That’s been missing for at least a week.

Speaking of manuscripts: there’s a solid chance that my first foray into the publishing world will be a bust. If so, I’m prepared to accept the rejection as a badge of honor. If it comes, the ding will stand as a sign that I’m putting myself out there, while also initiating me into a literary club absolutely littered with rejection notices.

Not a prediction and not feeling of defeat. Just saying.

We rearrange

It’s a mistake to think people are creative. They don’t create anything. What they do is rearrange things.

Novelist Mark Helprin interviewed 10-5-17 on the podcast, “The Avid Reader“.

Prior to that, he said, “You have to have models [to write about]. We have only what we are given in creation. We don’t create anything. All we can do is interpret it.

He’s one of those superb writers who’s had an incredibly interesting life, like Louise Erdrich (with her 1/2 German, 1/4 Native, 1/4 French ancestry (talk about a cast of characters!)). Turns out that as a boy, Helprin lived in a Parisian house that had safeguarded a Jewish family in its attic for years. Imagine what those walls had to tell a young child!

It’s important to remind a person like myself that every life is interesting in some measure. And besides, my life, to use his logic, is what I was given.

He also talked about how often writers’ first novels are autobiographical. He didn’t think so at the time but now sees it to be true.

His new novel is the first he’s ever set in contemporary time. I can’t wait to read it.

Meanwhile, my antique-dealing neighbor who sold his house put even more treasures on the curb today. I snagged a triptych — with hinges that work in both directions! I’ve wanted one for years. I mean, years. Our family room has a large opening to the cellar stairs which acts as a conduit for cold air. The temperature issue’s been partly resolved by hanging one fluffy blanket over the cellar door and another over the dog gate. But still, I’m thrilled.

I’m going to make some collage packs for Newton Open Studios and include some of this gorgeous Chinese-scribed paper. If you, dear reader, would like to receive a collage pack, leave a comment below saying so and I’ll draw a name next week.

There are no reliable narrators

“There are no reliable narrators,” said writer Matthew Klam recently.*

Even the stories we recite about ourselves shift with every telling, according to recent neurological studies (TED talk; no cite yet).

Add a dash of race, the legacy of slavery and questions of voice and you come to even thornier questions regarding authorship.

I’ll have some (more) rambling thoughts about this topic tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a link to the podcast, “Still Processing: Detroit and Confederate and Who Owns Stories about Blackness?” Two culture critics for the NYTimes, Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, attempt to answer some of these questions.

PS. I may’ve already shared this link. If so – forgive! It’s a signal of how good I found it!

* I haven’t read this novel yet but did hear the author interviewed by Teri Gross.

2019 Reading List (in progress)

Trevor Noah memoir. I just love him. What else do I need to say?

I read Frank for her wonderful descriptions of the Lowland landscape.

Read Myles’s “Afterglow” after getting it for Christmas. I’m going to be a die hard fan. Why hadn’t I heard of her? She kinda blew the top of my head off.

(Already have an e-version of this. Husband reading, January ’17).

(2017 Christmas gift) (read “Remains of the Day” years ago)

(2017 Christmas gift) (read “Bel Canto” years back).

The novel begins with an illicit kiss that leads to an affair that destroys two marriages and creates a reluctantly blended family. In a series of vignettes spanning fifty years, it tells the story of the six children whose lives were disrupted and how they intertwined. Wikipedia

These two books on writing came from article listing 16 texts on subject.

Choose Listen

A fluffy snow fell. I slept late. Tried not to feel guilty. On our walk (trusty ear buds in place) a little of my soul was restored by the smart pundits behind “Pod Save America”.

(this morning’s main point: pleeeease people! It’s not the fucking profanity that offends, it’s the underlying racial animus).

Off to the page. This morning already written a few paragraphs wondering what it’ve been like to see your breath for the first time as an underdressed bondwoman from Africa?

I will leave you with with an excerpt from this week’s reading:

“We follow the speaker and their shifting states, look at their shirt (do I want it?) carefully examining their shoes, taking their pulse in terms of the rhythmic pitch, the seismic by which we know what is going on in the ocean on earth right here in the room in terms of information mattering. Each of us is a cell of that potential knowledge cluster, that mammoth great dog being lead right now through the cosmos.

More and more of us came and the patterns got swifter and the knowing entirely disassembled and we will never reassemble it again but instead we now return to knowing’s just before. It is attractive.

To add. I did this in my childhood too. And you too else you would not be here. In adulthood we must relearn the wisdom of the young who feels her inside while she is being taught she is wrong. To abide in the totalitarian, to survive one must look straight into the face of the nun or whoever and muse. Yet this brought so much upon me. Warily I learned not to absorb their enmity. Choose listen.”

Eileen Myles, Afterglow (a dog memoir).

PS if you’re an SNL fan, there are strong echoes with Aidy Bryant’s recent Weekend Update performance, in which Aidy Bryant apologizes every other second and tries to craft her message about equality in a manner palatable to men.

Ward and Northup

I finished four books in the first week of 2018, a fact that’s a little less impressive given that I’d already read 2/3’s of one and 1/2 of another and that one of them was a slender volume of poems. And Shakespeare? The text is limited to the facing pages, so that went fast, too. Also: I tend to be terrific out of the gate, flag at the mid-range and die towards the end. The real test for this challenge (#theunreadshelfproject2018) will be mid-summer and fall.

Jesmyn Ward’s book, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” has everything (except sex): addiction, death, redemption, a road trip, one character’s coming of age, parenting (both deficient and exemplary), prison and release, the long shadow of slavery, and ghosts.

Set in contemporary Mississippi, the story features three generations and centers on themes of caregiving, racism, and secrets. There are acts of self-destruction and acts of mercy. The author also takes an interesting look at the porous line between death and life.

The elders, who are both African Americans, take care of their two bi-racial grandchildren. Their drug addicted daughter, Leoni, drives north to pick up her white husband, who’s about to be released from Parchman Prison. Leoni gathers up her 13 year old son, her toddler daughter, and a friend for the drive. That journey parallels two others that are happening simultaneously: the journey of her cancer-ridden mother toward death and that of her son, who approaches adulthood by grappling with the harsh truths around him, some of which have previously been secret.

I can tell you without spoiling too much that the novel features two ghosts. Early on, we learn that Leoni’s brother was “accidentally” killed by her husband’s cousin (we are meant to see it otherwise). She can see her brother’s ghost, but only when she’s high, a fact that made her addiction both more complicated and understandable. The other ghost appears to her son during the drive to Parchman. He is a former inmate and will be instrumental in releasing a long-held secret of Leoni’s father.

The 13 year old boy is a better caretaker of his sister than their mother, something that causes Leoni no end of defeated bitterness. The scenes of mother lashing out in frustration are rendered well and, for obvious reasons, hard to take. We see one of the costs of drug abuse up close and personal.

The author shifts point of view by chapter so that we get different perspectives throughout, but every chapter features haunting, gritty, and lyrical prose.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

To follow Jesmyn Ward’s book with a slave narrative made for powerful and damning echoes. [Trump’s “shithole countries” comment came two days ago, so there is no escaping the specter of white supremacy these days, said a person with white privilege].

One of the most startling parallels between Ward’s novel and Northup’s narrative can be found in the labor scenes. It was shocking but not shocking that the field work scenes depicted at Parchman Prison were barely distinguishable from those of a plantation (think: patrollers and dogs; unpaid labor. Think: Ava DuVernay’s “The Thirteenth”).

Both Ward’s novel and Solomon Northup’s story contain details of racially animated violence almost too awful to bear.

I won’t go more into the slim and eloquent “Twelve Years a Slave” because I imagine many of you have seen the film, except to say this : reading the narrative is very worthwhile even if you’ve seen Steve McQueen’s movie. To hear the words of this free black is powerful. To slow down and see the world through his eyes, also powerful.

Also read: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and an issue of the literary journal, Rattle.