Category: reading

Step Into the Mind of Your Favorite Iconic Author

Angela Davis annotated If They Come In the Morning

Image from PEN American Center’s First Edition/Second Thoughts Auction catalog.

What if you could step into the mind of your favorite author while they wrote your favorite book? What if you could find out not only how they crafted that brilliant prose, but what inspired them in the first place? And what if you could find out how they would write the book differently if they wrote it today?

Guess what! Now you can. Well, if you have enough money.

Today, the PEN American Center’s First Edition/Second Thoughts auction takes place. If you don’t happen to be in New York, you can bid online or by phone.

More than 75 famous authors and artists annotated their most iconic work, including notes in the margins, whole essays, pictures, doodles, and in one case of a photographer, a whole new set of images added to the book. Participating authors include Alice Walker, Billy Collins, Tony Morrison, Jane Smiley, Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates and many, many more.

If not limited by funds, which book on the list would you bid on and why?

I’m torn between Barbara Kingsolver’s Poison Wood Bible, Sue Grafton’s A is For Alibi, and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Each of those books showed me something new about reading, writing, and about myself. They are also books that have stayed with me longer–because of their characters, or story line, or plot twists–than some of the more established and more part-of-the-cannon literary works that I have read.

Here’s the PEN American center’s promotional video for the auction. It includes some of the writers reflecting back on what it was like revisiting their work.


Nightstand Reading List

Survey question: Do you have a stack of books like this on your nightstand? If so, what books are contending for your pre-slumber attention?

Nightstand books

I’ve started and almost finished all of these, but something forces me to bring up new reads before the first one is finished.

The Faith Found in Books

bibleWhen I was nearly 21, I got my cat Scout at a town 6 miles away.
His name wasn’t Scout at the time, it was Shadow, but dammit I was an English major and I knew wearing a beret all the time wouldn’t give me cred so instead I wanted to name my pet after one of my favorite literary characters since that was for sure original and cool and made me look legit.
So I named him Scout.

But here’s the thing: I’d only read To Kill a Mockingbird once in my life. Freshman year of high school.
Unlike other books I’ve read, loved, and continued to reread over and over, I don’t recall having that feverish need to read and reread To Kill a Mockingbird. I kept meaning to read it again. I swear, I meant to.

Two weeks ago I pulled it from my bookshelves and started reading. I’d just reread In Cold Blood (for probably my sixth time since first reading it a few years ago) and wanted to meet Dill again. His character was inspired by little kid Truman Capote.

I’d also been feeling a need for some nostalgia and some comfort. I recently started a new job and even though I am excited about the new adventure and am grateful, I’m having a hard time catching my breath and I worry it will affect my still-growing relationship with my boyfriend.

And I’m far from my close friends. And my family. And both my grandmothers were recently moved into assisted living facilities. And I haven’t seen them since they moved. And one of them is losing more and more of herself to Alzheimer’s and it’s completely out of everyone’s control, most of all hers, and before she was transferred to her new home she once found out it was Sunday and proceeded to walk two confused miles to church since her drivers license had been taken away months ago. Read more »

Dave Eggers’s The Circle: A Mirror and a Crystal Ball

the-circleHave you ever read a book that left you feeling a little hollow, a little less safe, and yet it was a story that you felt completely in control of most of the time? That was my experience reading The Circle by Dave Eggers. The Circle is a story of a twenty-something woman named Mae (short for Maebelline, a sure nod to the makeup brand, leaving readers to wonder if Mae’s parents had actually named her after a beauty product in this dystopian society) who has just landed a job at a futuristic version of a Google/Facebook/Twitter-like company called The Circle, making her a “newbie” Circler.

In her first week or two there, she learns just how much this job will become an overbearing part of her life. She’s required to “smile” at all sorts of meaningless chatter online (The Circle’s equivalent to “Likes” on Facebook.) and every few days it seems that a new screen is being added to her desk, requiring her to pay attention to multiple social and business arenas at once.

At first, I was as enamored by The Circle as Mae was. What’s there not to like? The campus is beautifully manicured, all amenities are free to employees — even a stock of merchandise brought into the campus’s overnight apartments for employees who don’t want to drive home after a long day at work — and creativity seems to be bursting out of every room.

This, coupled by the fact that Mae is able to include her parents (her father suffers from MS) on her super amazing health insurance, makes The Circle seem like a dream job, which is the point.

Eggers sets us up to fall in love with the place, but all the time, we’re watching Mae being bombarded with more and more media, technology, and social obligation, and it all starts to feel like a burden not worth carrying. Mae is even chastised for not attending enough after-work festivities when she first arrives on campus. Like a good employee who wants to please her superiors, she acquiesces and starts to fill up her time with extra-curricular activities that keep her on The Circle campus overnight more often than not.

Read more »

All the Songs Are Triumphant and Resolve to a Minor Key

praying-drunk-coverPraying Drunk
Kyle Minor
Sarabande Books
193 pages, $15.95

This morning I trashed e-mail from an organization called Kentucky for Kentucky. I have bought a couple shirts from the organization: “Lincoln is my Co-Pilot” and “Kickass Commonwealth since 1792.” This morning they were advertising a new poster, the Bluegrass alphabet:

A – Ali, B – Bluegrass, C – (Kentucky) Colonels, D – Derby, E – Ernest, F – Fried Chicken, G – Goldenrod, H – High Five, I – Isaac Murphy, J – John Jacob Niles, K – Keeneland, L – Lincoln, M – Mammoth Cave, N – Natural Bridge, O – Opossum, P – PawPaw, Q – Quilt, R – Rosie the Riveter, S – Shaker Village, T – Turtle Man, U – United We Stand, Divided We Fall, V – Vault (Fort Knox), W – Wigwam Village, X – Moonshine, Y – Y’all, Z – Zombie.

I am not usually so taken with statehood camaraderie, except perhaps after growing homesick watching Winter’s Bone or later today, when I finally finished Kyle Minor’s new collection of stories, Praying Drunk.

I’d read the first story in the book, “The Question of Where We Begin,” in a collection of flash nonfiction essays. The second line reads, “My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out,” and the following paragraphs wrestle with why, maybe this, maybe that, cause and effect, driving backward from the personal story, the family story, the national-historical story, to the mythic, big, beginning story. Here is an excerpt:

We begin with the trouble, but where does the trouble begin? My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out.

Now we may proceed to the aftermath. The removal of the body from his bedroom. The cleanup. The reading of the will. The funeral in West Palm Beach, Florida. The woman he wanted to marry, taking the ring he gave her and putting it on her finger after the death.

But this beginning is not satisfactory.  The mourners are now parsing their theories of why. Did you know that he was brain-damaged when that city dump truck hit him twenty years ago? Look at his children grieving in the front pew of the funeral room. Why wouldn’t they visit him except when they wanted his settlement money? Had his settlement money run out? And where is his ex-wife? Why couldn’t she love him enough to stay with him (for better or for worse, right?) Do you think it’s true he was physically violent with her like she told the judge?

I read “The Question of Where We Begin” months ago and said, simply, “Wow.” I had not read anything that good in a long time. Not only was the structure interesting—as it echoes the questions that we ask ourselves sitting in a pew, whittling down the suicide to the most basic and complex set of questions we can ask about character, choice, and death—but I recognized the people, the poverty, the darkness lingering at the edge of the forest. Read more »

The Sound of Your Voice, and Other Forms of Torture

I'm not really sure what's going on here. But I like it.

I’m not really sure what’s going on here. But I like it.

An online literary journal recently asked me if I was willing to record myself reading my forthcoming poem, and I said yes of course because that’s what you say when a literary journal asks you to do anything. And then I immediately regretted my decision.

There are people who exist who love the sound of their own voice, but I am not one of them. I have mixed feelings about reading out loud – I’m anxious for days leading up to it, I realize it’s not that bad and kind of enjoy the rush for the five minutes I’m onstage, and then I’m relieved it’s over and I want waffles. But I fully believe it’s necessary to read your work out loud and I’m always glad that I did it.

What I like most about giving a poetry reading is watching your words connect with someone in the audience. A stranger. A friend. They laugh, they smile, they roll their eyes, they cover their man parts because they think you’re a little frightening – it doesn’t matter what the reaction is, the fact that someone in front of you is reacting to something you wrote is amazing. On a good night, in a good venue, you can feel the energy in the crowd adjust to each poem and I eat that shit up.

But none of that exists in a voice recording.

It’s like trying to record your voicemail message. For like two minutes. I would get a few words out, be appalled by the sound of my own voice, press the stop button and start over. Read more »

A Name We Have Known

For ancient Japanese poets, rulebooks aided in the codification of topics—haze always designated spring; moon always meant the fat harvest moon of autumn unless modified by a different season. Place names, too, signified relationships with images or emotions through their codified use, even though the place may differ from an actual sight experienced: on a sunny day at Sayo no Nakayama, the place would still be associated with night and stormy weather.

That’s why poem 382 stands out to me:


The speaker is specifically addressing the disconnect between the symbolic meaning of the place (Returning Mountain, presumably where you would greet friends upon their return home) and the conflicting emotions felt. Rather than feeling ecstatic at greeting someone long-gone, the speaker is already lamenting their next goodbyes. The departure is tied into the arrival, as Joseph Campbell would say: every creation myth contains an apocalypse, because there can be no beginning without an end. Read more »

Used, but Infinitely More Interesting

On their way to make s'mores.

On their way to make s’mores.

In the romantic comedy Serendipity, Kate Beckinsale’s character writes her phone number in a used book and tells John Cusack’s character that if faith wants them to meet again, the novel will find its way back to him. The movie isn’t very interesting after that, but that scene outside the bookstore made me think about the treasures I’ve found in used books.

In a copy of Drowning Ruth, by Christina Schwarz, a picture of two young women had been used as a bookmark by a previous owner. I bought the book because it was an Oprah’s Book Club pick, but never finished it. Maybe because the unknown people in the picture were more intriguing than the plot. They’re wearing summer dresses, smiling, and posing in front of a pine tree. I like to think they’re at a gathering of good friends in a back yard somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. After the picture was taken, they lit the outdoor fire pit we can’t see, and sat down to drink wine and make s’mores.

A friend of mine lent me her copy of The Magic Circle by Katherine Neville. My memory of the plot is hazy, I confuse it with The Eight by the same author, but I do remember how much I enjoyed the process of reading the book. My friend comments and underlines while she reads. I’d find “Who’s this guy again?” or “How much more must she endure?” in the margins. Plot twists were underlined and “Whaaaat?!” written above. Reading her book was like having our own private book discussion, or maybe more like a private peep-hole into my friend’s mind. Read more »

Topic Unknown

In a thirty-one syllable poem, there isn’t much room for a narrative context. So, collections, like the Kokinshū, present the poem with the poet’s name (or “Anonymous”) and the topic, which reads “Topic Unknown,” if not presented as a condition preceding the writing of the poem (“Snow on the trees”) or an event (“Composed on hearing the cries of the wild geese” or “From the poetry contest held at the residence of Prince Koresada”) or a headnote. The headnote might describe the poem as a part of a greater narrative context, or show it as linked in a dialogue with another poem in the collection.

For example, the headnote of Poem 857 in the Kokinshū reads:

Soon after the Prince who was the Head of the Household Ministry married the fifth daughter of Kan’in, his wife died. The Prince discovered this poem, written when she was well, attached to the cord of one of the posts of her bedchamber.

if you recall me
fondly if you remember
me when I am gone
then gaze upon the mountain
haze in gentle reverie

The poem takes on an eerie quality following that narrative introduction. Enough information has been left out of the headnote to have it provide context while still acting suggestively—did the wife know that she would be sick or did she forecast her own death while still in good health? Spooky. Some of the annotations dismiss the factuality of such coincides, saying that they are not just doubtful but wholly fictive. Unlike, say, A Million Little Pieces, a fictional autobiography in this style would have been fine, expected even. No ancient Oprah would snap the author like a brittle winter twig for the fabrication of the number of root canals or the veracity in finding a poem begging for remembrance during a time of grief. While Poem 857 does not have such an annotation, a critical Westerner may assume that the narrative is fiction. In tanka, fact and fiction do not conflict, but collide and enrich the experience.

One of the goals of a good poem is to produce a little, peaceful “aha!” moment called a satori, often through jo-ha-kyū: “serene introduction,” then “extended and detailed narrative information, and finally, “an ending which is surprisingly sudden.”

Or, literally, “beginning, break, rapid,” instead of the Aristotelean beginning, middle, end.
Read more »

The Uniqueness of a Character’s Voice

bad-day-for-pretty-240hVery early in my writing life, I shared a story with some local writers during an event at the library where I lived in California. My prose told of an adventure involving pirates, pick-pocketing urchins, and buxom wenches. The writers read my tale and after a long moment of silence, one of them politely stated that she had problems distinguishing between my characters.

I had worked hard to create a unique quirk for each of them. My hero often cursed and my heroine had a certain way of flipping her hair. When I asked for clarification, the writer said, in a crisp English accent, “They all have a bit of a potty mouth, you see, at times a little too much.” She pointed to a page where she’d circled each swear word. Two males and one female were speaking. None of them uttered a sentence that didn’t contain the word “fuck.” If I hadn’t included a dialogue tag here and there, it would have read as one long manic rant. It still kind of did.

I revised and proudly showed up for a second evening of sharing at the library. Now, only the hero’s sidekick dropped the f-bomb. The hero instead used “shit,” while the heroine preferred milder profanities such as “crap.” The writer’s facial twitches made me snatch the pages out of her hand. Before leaving, I checked out a few books on the craft of writing.

As writers, we know that it’s not only what our characters say that is important, but also how they say it. The challenge is to make sure that each character has a unique way of speaking, moving, and thinking—and then stay consistent through the story

I new favorite author I recently started reading is Sophie Littlefield. I love her books because she is a master of close third person point of view. My favorite books of hers are a series of crime novels rich with humor and quirky characters. Told entirely from the main character’s POV, her sarcastic witty voice colors the story in ways that make it impossible not to laugh out loud. Read more »

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