The lovely Mrs. Millions decided that she really ought to be keeping better track of what she reads, especially since she reads so much these days. Hamstrung by various reading obligations and by my harebrained scheme for selecting what to read next, I don’t always get to read the books I want to read right away. Instead I hand them over to Mrs. Millions. Unlike me, she didn’t burden herself with literature classes in college, nor has she tried to make a career out of writing and reading, so she reads purely for fun, a fact that makes me a little jealous sometimes. Perhaps she’ll share her thoughts on some of the books she reads, as she has done here on one or two occasions, but probably not as that would take some of the fun out of the reading. Mrs. Millions’ reading list will live way down near the bottom of the far right column, but so you don’t have to go to the trouble of scrolling down, here’s what she’s been reading lately:
Louis Menand is one of my favorite regular contributors to the New Yorker, so I was excited to discover a Web site devoted to “the foremost modern scholar of American studies.” The Essential Menand includes commentary by three contributors as well as a handy collection of links to dozens of Menand essays in the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Slate.
The creative writing class is a beautiful thing. The longest journeys begin with a single step, and (I’m sure) just like countless colleges and writers’ centers throughout the world, the classes I attended at The Irish Writers’ Centre were safe, exciting places to put one figurative foot in front of the other. Though clearly my metaphors need a little work…
The established rules are pretty clear to anyone who’s attended school: do your assignments, listen to the other students, respect your teacher. But of course, society is also filled with unwritten rules, observed by most and flouted by others. Don’t sip your drink too loudly at the movies; don’t answer your phone during a gig; and, if you’re attending a writing class, don’t do any of the things described below.
1. “I didn’t know we could do that!”
Lesson number one begins with a writing exercise that I love. Students are asked to turn to their nearest classmate and ask three questions about their life, then take 10 minutes writing the opening paragraph of a story using some of these details. For example, if someone mentions that they travel a lot, tan easily, and like the ocean, you could (if you’re a genius) use it as the opening to a story like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.
It’s a great warm up if there’s a big enough group, and a chance for people to express themselves to a new class in a safe way. That is until people show resentment for classmate’s use of imagination.
To illustrate: One student was told of a classmate’s insomnia, love for travelling, and fondness of Latin America. This gave birth to a Latin variation on The Hulk (or Jekyll and Hyde, if you’re feeling even more generous). It was a lively, pulpy little piece and the closing line “when he slept, he became Rodrigo, and Rodrigo was not a nice person to know” evoked gasps and a few knowing chuckles: This young man had taken some bare facts and built the foundations of a fun — if slightly derivative short story. There were backslaps all round, at first.
“I didn’t know you could do that!” one student spluttered, so outraged she could barely get the words out fast enough. “He…he used supernatural elements. That’s not allowed! Is it?”
What was the real issue? That he didn’t follow her imagined parameters of the assignment? Or that her story was a literal shopping list of what she’d just been told? She had broken the first unwritten rule of creative writing classes: Don’t get sore if someone else has a better idea.
2. “Oh, I haven’t read it.”
Early in one beginner’s class, we were assigned to bring in a book we wished we’d written. I resisted the urge to bring in something classy like Ulysses, or indeed Slash’s autobiography, and instead opted for High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Another classmate brought in A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. She praised it eloquently, saying how the fall of a tycoon was relevant, how Wolfe writes with the authority of a gifted investigative journalist, and how it echoes Wolfe’s idol, Charles Dickens. “What do you like most about it?” asked the teacher.
“Oh I haven’t read it,” she breezed, without a hint of embarrassment or contrition. She later went on to correct other people’s assertions and interpretation of Wolfe’s opus, utterly oblivious to the inconvenient fact that they had read it and she had not.
You would think it doesn’t need clarification, but apparently it does: When told to talk about a book you admire, it’s best to choose one you’ve already at least opened.
3. “I thought it was sentimental.”
Outside of medicine and pharmaceuticals, which profession do you imagine is most affected by the existence of incurable diseases? I imagine it’s creative writing teachers. In the first class I attended, the writing-about-terminal-illness cases were approaching 50 percent. Terminal illness is obviously a serious subject, but even the most powerful subject’s impact can be dulled with repetition, or when it’s used as a narrative short cut.
You’ll be surprised how callous you become when numerous consecutive students read aloud their story about the elderly neighbor (kindly or cranky), known only for one hobby (gardening or withholding children’s Frisbees) who succumbs to a disease that reveals their true colors (humor and/or courage). Making someone cry is as hard as making someone laugh, and, in both comedy and tragedy, it’s painful to endure a piece of fiction that tries and fails.
This brings us to a student we’ll call “Anna” and rule number 3: Appreciate it when classmates are being polite. Her short story was about a precocious and grating young child who didn’t like her aunt. The twist is (you’re way ahead of me) that it turns out the aunt is fighting a serious disease. It was a mawkish, deadly serious piece of work, and the 4the illness-themed piece in one class. After she read it aloud, everyone gave polite, vague, and very gentle criticisms. Many tongues seemed to be held and bitten.
Then it came time to read my debut opus, in which a boy realizes he’s getting too old for stunts on his BMX. It was a little rough around the edges, but not the bike-crash I thought it was before Anna piped up. “I thought it was sentimental,” she snipped, oblivious to the fact that she had just read out a piece that Nicholas Sparks would have deleted and re-drafted. “Yeah, it was mawkish,” she continued, louder this time, “I didn’t get it”.
“Hey listen, lady!” I didn’t say. “The only reason you’re taking such liberties is because you wrongly think your story is nuanced and insightful.”
“And if we weren’t so polite during this fragile and important learning phase, you’d know how leaden and syrupy your misery mope fest really was,” I didn’t continue.
“Thanks, Anna, that’s really helpful,” I actually said, meekly and sadly combing over my every word to look for manipulative or sentimental passages I could re-write.
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes
I’ve been a bit under the weather lately, but I think I’m starting to get better. I’m well enough to post here anyway. Which is good, because I noticed a couple of books that I thought people might be interested in. Remember a few years ago when everyone was suddenly talking about “string theory?” This was because of a book by Brian Greene called The Elegant Universe, which somehow managed to solve a longstanding dilemma in the world of physics, that “general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right,” in a book readable enough to become a best seller. Greene proved to be one of those remarkable writers, of which there are very few, who have the ability to make a very boring and difficult topic interesting for everyone. And now he has a new book out: The Fabric of the Cosmos : Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, in which he continues to unwind scientific complexities with a combination of analogy and wit.My friend Edan pointed out another interesting, new book to me other day. Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution by the remarkably named, Alma Guillermoprieto. Edan and I both read an excerpt of this book in the New Yorker a while back. I enjoyed the way Guillermoprieto’s fierce Latin personality was tempered by her lyrical love of dance. This book seems perfect for anyone enamored by ballet and/or Cuba.A NoteFrom the book I just finished: “From his windows at MacGregor Road, he watched the President Polk leave the harbour. He knew nothing of President Polk, but assumed that the shipping company would have checked the record, beforehand, for anything scandalous. Then he did miss Audrey, with whom he could have spoken of such things.”
I’m deciding which books to take on a trip to Austin next week. I get excited every time I choose a new book to read, obviously, but I get especially keyed up about choosing books to take on a trip. Vacation books are important. A lot of people use vacation as a time to read lighter, dare I say trashier books, with pictures of women’s calves on the front or authors in bomber jackets on the back. This convention is predicated on the notion that you’ll be able to read for longer periods of time, and books that are heavier – thematically and physically so – will overtax your brain at a time when you are meant to give it a break.
I don’t think this notion gives our brains or our books enough credit. The deep immersion in a book that long bouts of reading produces is suited to books with the richest, deeply-buried treasures. A good book invites you to sever your connection with the real world and come into the one it creates; the longer you read it, the more that connection is severed, the more you exist in the interior world of the book rather than this one. Just imagine how this effect is heightened when the world you are in is alien to you, one where you’re just visiting and don’t know the people or your way around, and therefore the book’s world becomes the familiar one. This is when the magic happens.
I read the second and third volumes of In Search of Lost Time on a trip to Santorini during which I would spend whole afternoons – whole days! – reading Proust on a sun-soaked terrace. I may sound like Marie Antoinette advocating cake here, but those 300-page dinner party scenes are best read in one sitting. It does take a while to adjust to Proust’s rhythms, but once you’re there, my goodness, stay there as long as possible.
Taking a book on vacation, reading it in this leisurely, savoring manner, stacks the odds that it will become special to me. For this reason, I take a long time choosing, because I know that when I remember the vacation, it will be intertwined with my memories of the book I was reading. I associate Proust with Santorini the way I associate On Photography with Marseilles, Cloud Atlas with a train ride to Kansas City, Out Stealing Horses with a 9-hour plane ride, Home with Grenoble, and The Fault in Our Stars with a cabin in Colorado.
This theory of vacation books, which I subscribe to so heartily, all began with a vacation I took, to London, which was one of the worst decisions I ever made, and the book I took along, Banvard’s Folly, which was one of the best.
I spent my junior year studying in London. I fell in love with the city, and also with one of its men. He was my first real love and is still one of my favorite people in the world, but when the year was through and it was time for me to go back to my senior year in the States, we saw no other option than to break up. About two months later, he saw no other option than to start dating the girl who had been my best friend and roommate in London.
Oh, readers, the drama! The professions of anger and confusion and betrayal and regret and understanding and forgiveness and serenity. Peace was restored, hard feelings were said to be lacking, we all decided to move past it. Eighteen months later, another friend was getting married in London, and I was going over to attend. Ask yourself who the worst person I could have stayed with was. Then ask yourself if I stayed with her.
It wasn’t a fiasco, but it was pretty bad. It was a lot easier for the three of us to be past it when we were an ocean apart rather than in the same room. The folly of our decision to spend five days together was apparent from the first one. When things got weird — and they got weird a lot — I read my book.
I was an author events coordinator in Boston at the time, and we had just hosted Paul Collins. Of the several dozen author events I worked during my years there, his remains my favorite. His 40-minute talk was warm, engaging, informative, surprising, funny, inspiring, and delivered without notes. Every person in attendance, a tragically small number, purchased every one of his books. I did the same, and I’d been saving what I’d heard was the best.
Each of Banvard’s Folly’s 13 chapters tells the story of a person whose genius, ambition, or imagination far exceeded their success. The paperback’s subtitle is “Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World.” They are therefore forgotten, but in Collins’s hands unforgettable. There’s the titular Banvard, a famous painter who squandered his fortune trying to compete with PT Barnum. There’s the guy who first bred the Concord grape before you could patent that sort of thing. There was a French physicist who thought he’d discovered a new source of radiation and a woman who tried to prove Francis Bacon was Shakespeare.
Paul Collins is a gentleman to his subjects, always, and this book neither smirks nor condescends. It had the same lively curiosity and optimism that I’d witnessed in Collins’s talk, and when I needed to escape an awkward room or a conversation I wasn’t a part of, I would excuse myself to be introduced to more of these admirable, doomed people. Each of them was quixotically devoted to an idea that didn’t work out. I actually only just realized, 10 years later, as I’m writing this, that I was devoted to a doomed idea myself. I thought I could maintain two friendships that could not be maintained, and I was watching that idea fail. Maybe I needed to be in the company of someone who never smirks nor condescends.
Banvard’s Folly is very special to me. It was my best friend on that trip. I turned the last page as my plane was taking off from Heathrow. Then I closed the book, and hugged it, and I cried.
I choose my vacation books carefully. I can’t imagine one of them will ever be as significant as Banvard’s Folly was to that trip to London, but they’re important. Choose wisely.
I first experienced ennui while solving a crossword puzzle — no, not the actual feeling of listlessness or dissatisfaction; rather, that’s when I first encountered the word. My adventures in a new tongue had begun, a strange language called Crosswordese, which consists of words used often by crossword makers but rarely experienced in the real world. (By the way, in Crosswordese, a crossword maker is known as a cruciverbalist.)
Do you speak Crosswordese? When you lose a button from a shirt and can’t find the sewing kit, do you ask your partner where the etui is kept? Might you sometimes mischievously refer to margarine as oleo? Have you ever stridden into a church just to point out what a great apse it has?
I started a life of crossword-solving as a teenager, almost three decades before my first novel, Black Chalk, was published, and I give credit to the world of puzzles for helping foster my interest in language.
But crosswords are about more than accumulating words: crosswords are about having fun with words; crosswords are, in fact, about loving words.
Among my favorite crossword clues are the following (answers at the bottom of this piece in case you want to solve):
HIJKLMNO? (5 letters)
Site of unexpected change? (4 letters)
Where there’s a Will? (12 letters)
See, crosswords encourage you to play with language. And, as a novelist, I get to play in the sandbox of words every day. But more than just aiding in a love of language, more than just encouraging you to have fun with words, crosswords also stimulate skills such as lateral thinking, humor, and synonym use. You could say that crosswords are the ideal training tool for a novelist.
But the ways in which puzzles have affected my life as a novelist go deeper than the mere enjoyment of solving crosswords. In my early 20s, having discovered that I absolutely loathed Law (the subject of my college degree and subsequent training, and the area in which my parents wished me to work), I needed to find a job. I had known for some time that I wanted to be a novelist, but at that tender age I think I felt too young to write fiction. (And I know I felt considerably too scared.) So instead of turning to novels right away, I got a job in another area I loved: puzzles. And for years, I edited and compiled all sorts of puzzles — crosswords, logic problems, word searches, sudoku, riddles, spot the difference…How could all of this fail to leach into my fiction?
If Black Chalk reads like a puzzle (and many reviewers have stated as much) then it is as much because of my work in that field as it is because I enjoy challenging myself — I really do like tormenting myself with plot problems, it seems. As a writer you sit on your own in a small room for a very long time — and one of the ways I like to keep myself entertained, it turns out, is by constantly pivoting and twisting my plots like the pieces of a Rubik’s Cube until I come across a pattern I find particularly pleasing.
It feels to me that staring at the blank page is a lot like staring at a blank crossword grid. When I make up a crossword, I have, say, a theme and 10 or a dozen answers that I want to place in the grid. And when I set out to write a novel, I have a theme and 10 or a dozen plot points or developments that I want to place in the story. And so the challenge, in both cases, becomes one of getting everything to interlock, of making everything work together, a matter of filling in the gaps in the most pleasing way possible.
Because, let’s face it, what better way is there than solving puzzles to stave off the feeling of…I’m stumbling for the right word here…It’s something like boredom…Dammit, I’m supposed to be good at synonyms…Ah, that’s it: ennui.
⅄∀M∀H⊥∀H ƎNN∀ ؛∀ℲOS ؛(¡O oʇ\ᄅ H) ᴚƎ⊥∀M :sɹǝʍsu∀
Image Credit: Flickr/Chip Griffin
The “Best Books of 2003” lists are coming fast and furious now. I’ve grabbed the links to a handful of them for your reading pleasure. The New York Times selected just nine books to be dubbed “Editors’ Choice,” a prestigious honor. The Seattle Times put together slightly a quirkier list of best books, while SFGate does a more all-inclusive notable books list. I also dug up some lists from a couple of papers that are not known for being literary trendsetters, but whose lists are rather refreshing, and perhaps more in tune with the tastes of the broader reading public when looked at next to the heavyweights: here are the “best books” lists of The Star Telegram in Dallas and the Sun Herald out of Biloxi, Mississippi. There isn’t a book that appears on all five of those lists, nor even on four out of five. There are four books which appear on three out of five lists, and together they make an eclectic bunch. The best of the year? Perhaps not, but a good little quartet:Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezDrop City by T.C. BoyleHow to Breathe Underwater by Julie OrringerThe Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise ErdrichAnd now, weighing in at 133lbs. is the BIGGEST book of the year… (and according to Guinness, it’s actually the biggest of all time)