Her: A Memoir

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Born from Books: Six Authors on Their Childhood Reading


Books are our first, and sometimes best, teachers. I inherited the books of my older brothers. While they were away at college, I went into their rooms and stacked and arranged the titles by color and letter. My two favorite relics from their childhood were Punt, Pass and Kick and The How and Why Wonder Book of Stars. The diagrams of movement across the gridiron reminded me of the constellation maps. I appreciated that athletic bodies and celestial bodies were in constant motion, and yet might be captured in a single glance.

I was years away from the writing instruction of workshops and line edits, or the training of literary analysis. Those early years of reading were charged with the stuff of raw imagination. After I exhausted the books of my brothers, my parents took me to the library and used book sales. I wanted to run and play basketball, but I also wanted to read until I fell asleep, chin planted on open pages. My father had been a college football player who studied theology; my mother read history and poetry and told stories with layers and layers of detail. I was raised to appreciate words and to embrace wonder.

It might be because I teach young students, but I am endlessly fascinated by the routes of our reading lives. I seek interviews with writers because I look for their origin stories. I want to pinpoint the moment reading became a life-breathing activity. I am particularly drawn to the memories of writers whose imaginations remains raw and jarring; writers who are “charged,” to borrow the language of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I contacted six writers with such imaginations, and am happy to share their memories about the books that were most formative during their childhoods.

1. Nina McConigley, author of Cowboys and East Indians:
It’s hard to grow up in the American West and not read Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read all the Little House on the Prairie books at a young age, and I was in love with the whole pioneer narrative. Like Laura, my parents had traveled far to make a home in the West. I also came to love the simplicity of her language and her storytelling. She had no sentimentality. She would so matter-of-factly say the worst news: Mary was blind. The crops failed. It was a sad day though when I realized Laura and I would not have been friends. Her ma hated Indians (albeit the other kind), and the books weren’t that kind to others or brown people. But I marveled over her making a lot out of little — sewing, canning, simple pleasures. But I mostly connected with how Laura loved the land—the prairies and woods, the sky and open– which were so important to me as a little girl in Wyoming.

Since my parents both grew up in colonized countries — India and Ireland, much of what they read as children was British. So, as a little girl, I was introduced to Enid Blyton, who seemed to be the most prolific writer ever. She wrote several series from the Famous Five and Secret Seven to scores of boarding school narratives like The O’Sullivan Twins or The Naughtiest Girl. But what I loved were her fairy stories. She wrote a trilogy about a magic tree which started with The Enchanted Wood. In the book, three children found a magic tree, and climbed it — and at the top was a series of ever-changing lands — The Land of Birthdays, The Land of Sweets. I think as a brown kid living in Wyoming, these books were the ultimate in escapism. I was transported into a forest in England where the world was constantly shifting. I found this extremely comforting. I would often find myself climbing the big cottonwood tree in our backyard, hoping I would be taken away by something bigger than me.

2. William Giraldi, author of Hold the Dark:
In the late 1980s, Time-Life Books had a popular, 33-volume series called Mysteries of the Unknown. At 11 years old, I didn’t know enough to be irked by the redundant title — all mysteries are unknown: that’s the definition of “mystery” — and so I grabbed the phone (Time-Life advertised on television) and soon began receiving books on UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster, poltergeists and Sasquatch, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle and the Great Pyramid of Giza, werewolves and vampires and witches. For a cradle Roman Catholic reared in only one acceptable species of the supernatural, these titles seemed great feats of transgression and betrayal, fonts of the extraordinary and occult, a concussion of the spiritual and the cerebral, the factual and the fantastical. The books were mostly cascades of conjecture and fatuity, of course, but they rubbed against my imagination in all the ways I needed then. Mystery is another word for hope; monsters are how we make sense of ourselves. New Jersey seemed so drab without them. In the years after the Time-Life series, I’d be found by Poe and Stoker, by Stevenson and Wells, and then it was off into the more “serious” stuff: important books, yes, but hardly ever as wondrous.

3. Sara Eliza Johnson, author of Bone Map:
I remember loving Black Beauty and A Little Princess, which was my mother’s favorite book as a girl (and one reason for my name, which has no “h!”). I also read a lot of series meant for young girls — Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club, the Ramona Quimby books — though my absolute favorite series was Goosebumps. R.L. Stine wrote the original series in my prime formative reading years, from 1992 (when I was eight years old) to 1997 (when I was 13), and I was always so excited when a new one came out. My early love of Goosebumps (as well as the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series) blossomed into the unapologetic affection for the horror genre I have today, a lonely affection to have in adulthood! But my favorite book as a child was probably The Giver, which, like many in my generation, I read for English class at the beginning of sixth grade. It was my first taste of dystopia, and so, in some ways, the first challenge to my world, and the first literary protagonist with whom I truly felt a kinship. When Jonas receives from the Giver the unwieldy collection of memories his monotone community has buried — of pain, war, starvation, but also pleasure and art — he becomes isolated and lonely in a way I think that I sometimes felt then, as a shy child without siblings. In the Receiving process, memory is a physical phenomenon literally subsumed and experienced by the body, as when Jonas receives the memory of a broken leg and feels as if his leg is broken — an early reminder that these entities we often consider purely psychological, such as memory, language, and dream, have physical and even physiological presences. I never read the rest of the books in the series, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I think perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the book — one of its lessons for even adult authors — is how it ends, in that it doesn’t quite end, leaves us in the aperture of uncertainty: “Behind him, across the vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo.”

4. Dimitry Elias Léger, author of God Loves Haiti:
The books that absolutely rocked my world as a kid, before my 10th grade teacher introduced me to The New York Times Book Review and Great Classic Literature, were a French series dating back to the early 20th century. You see, the first novels I read were in French because I lived in Haiti from ages eight to 14. Somewhere around the age of 10 probably I met Arsene Lupin, the gentleman thief. The clever master of disguise starred in 16 novels and 36 short stories starting in 1905. The novels were thrilling. As befitting a French answer to the cerebral Sherlock Holmes, Lupin was a darkly humorous lady-killer. Come to think of it, he may well indeed be a good precursor to James Bond. I devoured Maurice Leblanc’s Lupin stories, and, during summer vacations in New York City, the books that slayed my pre-teen imagination were Chris Claremont’s X-Men. The Phoenix Saga may very well be the greatest, most epic comic story of all time, much as the love story of Cyclops, with his death-ray eyes, and Jean Grey, an unsuspecting world consuming telepath, was the most riveting love story. The tragic story of the brooding band of mutants and the stories of a leaping, thieving lover of Parisian rooftops and the jewels of Parisian nobles were my favorite books as a kid. These series’ gentle high-low balance rewards rereads to this day.

5. Tony Ardizzone, author of The Whale Chaser:
I grew up on the North Side of Chicago, the oldest boy in a large working-class Italian-American family. We lived in a basement flat, then a second-floor flat across the street from a liquor store, and finally in a brick two-flat, with tenants upstairs. I grew up in a house without books. We always had newspapers — when I was a boy Chicago had four daily newspapers — because my father sold newspapers. I went to Roman-Catholic schools and read the books they gave us: the Baltimore Catechism (much of which I still know by heart) and Bible stories. In school after lunch each day, the Sister of Christian Charity who taught us read to the class a chapter or so from a series of books about a boy named Tom Playfair, a rough-and-tumble kid sent off to Catholic school, who had to struggle to live up to his name.

After we moved to the brick two-flat in Chicago’s Edgewater district, I discovered a mobile library van parked about six blocks away, and I got a library card and checked out as many books as I could carry. The librarian often questioned me, asking if I was sure I could read all the books I wanted in one week. I told her I could, and I did. Reading was a sort of sanctuary to me. Our flat was small and our family had a lot of kids and reading was a way for me to be by myself for a while. I read every book the mobile van had about dinosaurs. I also read what were considered the classics at the time: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Robinson Crusoe, an edited version of Moby Dick. I supplemented these books by reading every Classic Illustrated comic I could get my hands on. Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Time Machine were among my favorites. I often read these while standing around those circular comic book displays in a neighborhood drugstore. When the owner yelled for me to quit browsing, I’d do my best to remember my place, then pick up the comic the next time I was in the store.

A middle-aged woman cashier in the grocery store where I was often sent to buy milk and eggs took a liking to me and one day gave me a big, marvelous hardback anthology of dog stories. The book had a blue cover. I wish I still had it. I read and re-read every story in the book several times. Best of all, it was my book, not one I’d have to return to the mobile library van on Saturday morning.

My turning point came years later when I was in high school. On Saturdays my friends and I would go down to Chicago’s Old Town, where we’d knock around the neighborhood. I always ended up spending hours in Barbara’s Bookstore on Wells Street. It was a big, wonderful place, full of books and posters and poetry on placards and broadsides up on the walls. It was there in Barbara’s Bookstore that I saw a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book of poetry, Coney Island of the Mind. It knocked me out. I never before realized that poetry could be written this way. The book made me truly want to be writer.

6. Christa Parravani, author of Her:
Most every street of our Tarawa Terrace neighborhood on Camp Lejeune was named after a battle: Bougainville drive. Inchon Street. Iowa Jima Boulevard. The battle of Tarawa was for a small Pacific atoll in 1943. The battle of growing up with a Marine stepfather, was he believed that children should be seen and not heard.

Marines have a way of saying things. Houses are housing. Dinner is chow. A bed is a rack. Teeth are fangs. But get lost was still get lost.

I escaped silently into books. I read whatever my teachers gave me.

I was 13 the summer my stepfather left. The Persian Gulf War was televised that January. I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried not too long after. The novel was live in my hands, my first real touch of literature’s flame. The story of Vietnam, how it haunted every military family I knew, how its lure was part of me like my family’s story was. My stepfather may not have loved me, but I had to love him, and those years on Lejeune gave me a love of country, of the fighter. O’Brien opened my heart with a story that arguably has nothing to do with a teenage girl. But I’d shut up for far too long. The war was alive in me.

A Year in Reading: Jayne Anne Phillips

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I’ve loved a lot of books this year, relatively recent discoveries I’ve finally had time to dive into, or books I’ve re-read, like Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, Barry Gifford’s The Roy Stories, Christa Parravani’s haunting memoir, Her. Reviewing a new biography of Stephen Crane (Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire) sent me back to Crane’s poetry (“Because it is bitter/ and because it is my heart”) and prose. The Red Badge of Courage and his gorgeous stories remain immortal. The pulsing synesthesia that marked his writing emanates, controlled and rhythmic, in every graph.

I’ve needed books this year, as the world and the Republic shudder and seem to devolve. Books can be visionary arcs of narration that soar beyond our time, even by penetrating the past. Alchemy and transformation are on my mind: the magic of character, the wonder of the sentence on the page, the spiritual ascendance of books that bear witness. James Agee’s A Death In The Family, with its searing gaze into the heart of identity, remains my Bible. My pantheon includes They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell, Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in The Secret Sea, and Irene McKinney’s collected poems, Unthinkable. I love her single volumes: Vivid Companion, tightly bound as a silken correspondence, and her posthumous, Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? Each of these books moves through death as though it were a mere worm hole in a celestial galaxy; each decodes a personal survival that made writing the work a necessity for the writer. History, personal or national, may tell us the facts, but literature tells us the story, and stories are immortal. Poetry is full of story. Louise Gluck’s Faithful And Virtuous Night is its own soaring novel; Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda imagines an adjacent constellation; “rows of ghosts come forth to sing” in Rigoberto Gonzalez’s Unpeopled Eden. Poems can break character into glittering shards and let us see it whole: Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke “sees” bigger-than-life boxer Jack Johnson; Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A imagines the life of 13-year-old MacNolia Cox, the first African American contestant in a ’30s-era national spelling bee, disqualified by Southern judges with an unofficial word: “nemesis.” If character is destiny, memorize Leonard Gardner’s masterpiece, Fat City: a perfect novel about “allegiance to fate” in late-’50s Stockton, Calif. If you’re a reader who looks askance at the writer of the moment, don’t let that wariness warn you off Penelope Fitzgerald, suddenly awarded the attention we wish she’d had when she was nearly destitute, raising three children in a drafty houseboat on the Thames. She saw it all through to The Blue Flower, her own masterpiece, a book I read every year for sheer pleasure, with depthless thanks.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

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An Ode to Photocopies: 50 Versions

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1. I make too many copies.

2. When using even the best machines, including those newly serviced and primed, a double-sided job is a risk. I say prayers while the sheets are sucked through the feeder. Hail Mary, full of grace (the sheets disappear), the Lord is with thee (the originals reappear on the other side of the feeder, safe), blessed art thou among women (the copies begin to move through the machine’s hidden innards), and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus (the stapler engages), holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now (the first packet exits, secure), and at the hour of our death (more packets follow, until the first tray is out of paper, and the machine shifts, slowly, to the second tray), Amen.

3. I am a high school English teacher. I give my students books, but they can’t mark-up those bound pages. Yellow and pink Post-its flap from the sides, but after they finish an essay on Beloved, the notes are torn out, stacked, and tossed.

4. Except for that one student who arranged her notes for The Sun Also Rises so that her marks formed Ernest Hemingway’s face.

5. Which is a copy, itself.

6. I like the word “photocopy,” but not as much as the word “mimeograph.”

7. I have one prep period a day, which means 40 minutes to pause, drink water, but mostly make copies. I hog the machine. I teach AP literature and two levels of creative writing.

8. There are a lot of words worth sharing. Photocopies are my contribution to this literary communion.

9. We used to enter a personal code so that the district could track our copies. Teachers would leech off those who did not log-out. I will neither admit nor deny my own participation.

10. I pull a chair to the front of my classroom. Students open the door, and each day there are fresh copies piled, waiting to be plucked. They are an announcement: it is time for work.

11. “Do you have an extra copy of __________? I lost mine.” Yes. But I always keep two copies for my files. Siblings to be saved.

12. I tell my AP literature students that I might be the last English teacher they will ever have. If they score well on the exam, they will gain college credit and never again read about the “inscrutable house” of Elizabeth Bishop.

13. Which means I am not going down without a fight.

14. Or, without making copies.

15. One of my first summer jobs was destroying photocopies of courthouse records that had become computerized. I fed the sheets into an industrial shredder that chomped staples and clips as easily as paper.

16. Teachers often ask if they can put-in the next job, creating a chain of words that wheel through the overworked machine. It can handle that play in the morning, when tired students trudge to first period and tired teachers down coffee and tired bus drivers chat in the lobby. But come noon, that litany of literature slogs the machine, and it clunks to a stop.

17. Breaths are held.

18. The status screen lights up, red scattered among the machine’s skeleton. Someone takes a knee, opens the door, and performs mechanical surgery.

19. Recent copies: “Is it O.K. to Be a Luddite?” by Thomas Pynchon (essay). “Antarctica” by James Hoch (poem). “The Visit” by Amanda Davis (story). “No One’s a Mystery” (pdf) by Elizabeth Tallent (story). “The Way It Has to Be” by Breece Pancake (story). “Stained Glass” by Charles Baxter (story). “Whaling out West” by Charles D’Ambrosio (essay). “Jacob and His Friends Work Out the Difference Between Post and Modern” by Jacob Paul (essay). “The Dinner” by Clarice Lispector (story). “Fiat Lux” by Traci Brimhall (poem). “Cameo” by Natasha Trethewey (poem).

20. Teachers from other departments drift to our building, their eyes wide, originals leaning from their hands. They want to use our machine. They want to know if we have staples.

21. Students expect packets to be stapled.

22. Students shouldn’t expect anything. They are cared for in high school, but that care will end, soon. I ease them off the care, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be very caring.

23. My desks are in rows. 5 copies of 5. Like formal verse, I find that the greatest freedom and eccentricity occurs within structure.

24. Other than creative works culled from books or PDFs, my handouts are homegrown, peppered with metafictive asides and references. Those phrases are buried within contextual information about William Faulkner’s Mississippi or sample annotations for “Out, Out” by Robert Frost. A smirk means they found it. A blank stare means they didn’t read, or they found it and are not amused.

25. Whether I mean to or not, my students copy my style of reading.

26. How could they not? They share the room with me for 180 days, 40 minutes a day.

27. But they are never the same as me. Each copy has a smudge, a misplaced staple, a loss of toner, the gain of individuality.

28. Copies for the next week are piled along a cabinet or tucked into plastic shelves.

29. Teaching is all about planning, along with the awareness that plans should often defer to realities. If I meant to talk about how Hemingway hid the subject of the conversation in “Hills Like White Elephants,” but if my students are speaking with passion and insight about the rhythm of the couple’s speech, do I stop them?

30. Photocopying is often a subversive act. I do not mean the breaking of copyright. Fair use is fair. I mean that before quick clicks from smartphone cameras, photocopies were ways of lifting pages from reference libraries and locked offices and spreading them into the outside world.

31. So every photocopy is a manipulation, a copy of a copy.

32. Of course I copy Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

33. “One might subsume the eliminated element in the term ‘aura’ and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.”

34. Literature dies when it becomes the means toward the ends of absent politicians and distant state departments of educations. The role of the high school English teacher is also not to create a legion of English majors — God help us — but rather to pause a student’s hectic and harried day and get them thinking about words.

35. Their own words, and the words of others.

36. To get them thinking about auras.

37. Because one argument for literature that should find supporters in both conservative and progressive traditions is that the arrangement of beautiful words into beautiful shapes has intrinsic worth, and that artistic beauty can do something to the soul.

38. Something that might not be catalogued on a rubric, or on a standardized exam.

39. Both of which, ultimately, exit a copy machine and enter less-than-willing hands.

40. “Vilar was a little bomb-happy for my taste. But there it is. And George in the meantime was wearing out the Xerox.”

“Not knowing.”

“I liked George. We got along. George was an interesting man. We spent time together.”

“What did you do with the material he copied?”

“It was worthless.”

“A lot of waxy paper.” from Players by Don DeLillo.

41. I have likely copied more words by or about DeLillo than any other single writer.

42. “If anyone is guilty of turning modern Americans into Xerox copies, it is Don DeLillo.” — Bruce Bawer.

43. I disagree with Bawer, but some of my students might agree with him. What I love about photocopies is that they flatten the spines of books; they wrestle authority from the author for a moment, and give the students a chance to participate.

44. I want them to push back against Bawer and DeLillo. At first, they are knocked down; they swing wildly, without reason. But the firmer their critical sense is cultivated, the sooner they become readers who can mark-up their photocopies with annotations that are not merely “personification” but “Gary Harkness needs Taft Robinson, but Robinson does not need Gary; this scene in the dorm room reveals it.” They become readers who commune with literature.

45. I have saved photocopies from college. Handouts that somehow retain the blue-purple tinge of a typewriter.

46. My daughters are identical twins. They have been called “multiples.”

47. “Identical twins are not exactly alike. They begin in the womb, at conception, with a single egg and sperm. Twins are made after the egg is fertilized and splits. Similarity is a result of how long the egg takes to divide. The longer it takes for the egg to split, the more alike a set of twins will look. We must have split early. My feet and nose were larger than Cara’s. As adults she usually outweighed me by fifteen pounds. Identical twins share the same DNA but do not have identical DNA. The egg splits into two halves to form identical twins, but the DNA does not divide equally between the two cells. We were like an apple sliced in half: two halves of the same fruit, one with more seeds, one with fewer.” from Her by Christa Parravani.

48. I read Christa’s memoir while in manuscript, and wrote notes after notes on those workshop copies. I hoped that those copies became a book, and they did.

49. My wife and I are always asked how we tell our twin daughters apart. There is a tension in that question that perhaps only an English teacher would worry about: why do we often begin with a desire to separate? My girls are not copies, but they are connected. I see how they look at each other. They share something.

50. I hold the fresh photocopies against my shirt, and they are warm like my daughters’ pajamas from the dryer. Each copy is made with the hope that words will reach hands and eyes that will consider them, if only for the long moments of class. That is enough.

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