Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

So I have a post in the works containing my thoughts about the Amazon Kindle, which I (quite unexpectedly) found myself in possession of this Christmas. In addition to transferring some knitting patterns and Instapaper documents to it, I’ve read Syzygy by Amanda Borenstadt and am in the process of reading Jane Eyre.

Or rather, I was in the process of reading Jane Eyre. And then this happened.

That's two-thirds of Agatha Christie's face.

Let’s just say it involved an unfortunate accident with folding laundry and leave it at that. I feel pretty awful, since this was a gift from my future father-in-law, and I’d owned it for all of a month and three days before this happened. But I’m going to see about replacing it.


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I have just checked Madeleine L’Engle’s The Weather of the Heart out from the library.

I thought I had borrowed another of her poetry collections (Lines Scribbled on the Back of an Envelope) last fall; but it must have been this one, unless many of the poems are the same. Even if it is the same book, there are many poems I didn’t read last year, due to laziness and due dates, including her seven poems “To a Long Loved Love.”

Much of her writing is dear to me, although I cannot claim to know her as intimately as I know Tolkien or Flannery O’Connor. On my shelf there sit A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet–after which that series got a little too weird for me. But the first book of hers I bought and read, at the recommendation of a friend, was Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

Although her theology sometimes gets a little loopy, she is remarkably clear-sighted when it comes to an Incarnational view of art. She added an invaluable dimension to my relationship with writing, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say she was one of the people who convinced me to go to grad school.

To read her poetry is to come to know her, to see the world as she sees it–and I find she has a remarkable understanding of love.

To a Long Loved Love: 4

You are still new, my love. I do not know you,
Stranger beside me in the dark of bed,
Dreaming the dreams I cannot ever enter,
Eyes closed in that unknown, familiar head.
Who are you, who have thrust and entered
My very being, penetrated so that now
I can never again be wholly separate,
Bound by shared living to this unknown thou?
I do not know you, nor do you know me,
And yet we know each other in the way
Of our primordial forbears in the garden,
Adam knew Eve. As we do, so did they.
They, we, forever strangers: Austere but true.
And yet I would not change it. You are still new.

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I am sad that I’ve finally caught up with Girl Genius.

I’ve been racing through it over the past week. Which means I’ve been spending more time reading it than doing the things I should be doing–writing, getting ready for the fall semester, and so on.

But it was like reading a good novel: you just couldn’t put it down. Or close the browser. And yesterday I finally reached the comic that was posted on Monday.

This morning I read Wednesday’s comic. It’s going to be a very different experience, reading it one page at a time, three times a week. For one thing, it made me realize part of the reason I couldn’t stop reading it when I was catching up for several years: although, like a novel, it is a unified whole (although I think I can see the moments where the story evolved for the authors, where they threw things in and tied other things together), the fact that it’s being posted page by page makes it very episodic: the end of every page is a mini-cliffhanger, or mini-resolution.

For another, the experience of really sinking in to something, inhabiting the breath of a story, is something nourishing. I guess I’m referring to this experience when I say that Girl Genius feels novelistic. It’s not something you can get from one page MWF, or from short stories. You need the breadth and depth offered by longer forms, something that gives you space to really live in it, alongside the characters who inhabit that space.

When I complained to Keith about how much time this comic was wasting, he half-seriously asked if there was any way I could justify reading it, make it a part of the work I was procrastinating. “This helps my work because X.” The short term answer was no. No, this is NOT helping me write my literary short story about skunks.

But the long term answer, I think, is yes. The ideas and inspiration behind the story; the characters, the world, the plots, the various storylines pulling apart and coming back together and weaving in all sorts of ways–yes, I think it can be justified.

Any novel, anything you read as a writer feeds you. Even if it feeds you garbage. (So maybe reading a bad novel is worse than reading a bad short story?) But a good story, well-told, sinks into your bones, makes the world in which you write a bigger place.

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Reading Habits

Up til now I’ve been adamant about keeping this blog meme-free, but I thought this seemed suitable. Enjoy.

Do you snack while reading? No. However, I always bring a book to the table with me when I’m eating meals alone. Always have. My parents eventually had to make a rule about bringing books to the dinner table. To this day both me and my brother read while we’re eating.

What is your favourite drink while reading? Usually coffee, but when days like these throw you 90+ degree weather … iced tea. Or just water.

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? I’ll mark textbooks or other “utilitarian” books. Other than that, no. I actually need to find some way of marking books; I always think I’ll remember things (quotes, passages, ideas), and of course I never do.

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat? Often I just leave off at a natural break so I can find it again without marking it. But I also use makeshift bookmarks. Receipts, prayer cards, slips of scrap paper, etc.

Fiction, non-fiction or both? Both, but I need strong doses of fiction for my well being.

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere? Usually near the end of a chapter, but if I’m interrupted in the middle of a scene I can pick back up again pretty easily.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you? I think I’ve only done this once, and–anticlimactic–I don’t remember what book it was. I will slam them down on the couch/table and trash talk them.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away? Almost never, unless I really can’t figure it out and it bothers me.

What are you currently reading? Spirit Seizures by Melissa Pritchard and Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.

What is the last book you bought? People I Wanted to Be by Gina Ochsner and Character Building by David Isaacs are both in the mail. I also recently bought John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read? Before falling asleep; at the table while I’m eating; in the morning before I get started; whenever I want to procrastinate something.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones? I think I prefer stand-alones. I don’t read any series, per se, although I do like some trilogies. However, if there isn’t a good reason for a trilogy to be a trilogy, they annoy me.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over? Flannery O’Connor’s stuff. I also recommend The Book Thief a lot, and this year I’ve told several people they ought to read Susan Minot’s Monkeys.

How do you organise your books? By “genre”, mostly. And by “genre” I mean how I perceive or feel about the stories as much as how you’d find them organized in a book store. Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, and Madeleine L’Engle have a shelf mostly to themselves, with a few others thrown in. The next shelf is half YA, half poetry (including Shakespeare), with Witness by Karen Hesse standing in between the two. Gina Ochsner’s Russian Dreambook is on this shelf also, next to The Book Thief.

The next shelf is literary/writerly. So I have my literary fiction, my books about writing, my literary journals, and then–my books in Spanish. (These used to be separated, but I’m running out of shelf space.) The final shelf is philosophy, religion, and books in my “to-read-but-not-immediately” pile.

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What’s wonderful is when you discover an author whose work, once read, fills a gap in the world you’ve never realized was there before. And I love it even more when they are alive and writing. This is such a gift I feel the only way I can possibly repay it is by writing to the author and telling them so.

I am currently readingPeople I Wanted To Be, Gina Ochsner (pronounced OH-sner). This short story collection was published in 2005; her first, The Necessary Grace To Fall, won the Flannery O’Connor award and was published in 2002. Most recently she wrote a novel called The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, and I bought it, brand new–which is something.

I am still getting practice at writing book reviews (my first, for Susan Minot’s Monkeys, showed up in Hot Metal Bridge earlier this year); but I would like to tell you about her sometime soon, when I am not procrastinating preparing for class.

In the meantime, here is a quote of hers from an interview. It really pleases me to no end. Although I have a feeling I need to give myself at least an hour when I sit down to write; but every time I read something like this, that shows how different the process is for every writer, it brightens my heart and makes it a more welcome place for hope, that thing with feathers.

It IS true that I only write a few times a week and those times tend to be very short in duration—perhaps an hour or shorter. For awhile I worried that these short spurts spelled doom for me as a writer. Surely a writer must always be writing? But then I stumbled upon a brilliant interview in Associated Writers Chronicle with Jill McCorkle. She’s a wonderful short story writer and novelist and the interviewer asked her how many hours a day she wrote. She laughed, I think. The word hours must have struck her sideways. Because, as it turned out, she wrote in small spurts: forty minutes here, thirty minutes there, and in this way constructed magnificent novels. She mentioned that had she held out for long blocks of time she would have become embittered because the large blocks of time simply never arrive on schedule. That’s been true with me as well. But ten minutes? Those open up all the time while I’m waiting in line at the post office (what a great place to people-watch!). Likewise, in doing the mundane, daily tasks of washing dishes, stirring the laundry, fishing for the mate to a lonely sock, I am working out with my hands a snarl with a story. The hands complete what my mind cannot. And so, yes, I am breathing around the story and the characters who will not be pushed or bullied by my hands on the keyboard. It’s always better for me to clean the house first, anyway. If things go sour with a story, and things always do at some point, I console myself with the knowledge that at the very least I matched seven pairs of socks, and that is no small thing.

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I do not feel the peace I once did: not with God, nor the earth, or anyone on it. I have begun to prefer this state, to remember with fondness the other one as a period of peace I neither earned nor deserved. Now in the mornings while I watch purple finches driving larger titmice from the feeder, I say to Him: I would do it again. For when she knocked on my door, then called me, she woke what had flowed dormant in my blood since her birth, so that what rose from the bed was not a stable owner or a Catholic or any other Luke Ripley I had lived with for a long time, but the father of a girl.

And He says: I am a Father too.

Yes, I say, as You are a Son Whom this morning I will receive; unless You kill me on the way to church, then I trust You will receive me. And as a Son You made Your plea.

Yes, He says, but I would not lift the cup.

True, and I don’t want You to lift it from me either. And if one of my sons had come to me that night, I would have phoned the police and told them to meet us with an ambulance at the top of the hill.

Why? Do you love them less?

I tell Him no, it is not that I love them less, but that I could bear the pain of watching and knowing my son’s pain, could bear it with pride as they took the whip and nails. But You never had a daughter and, if You had, You could not have borne her passion.

So, He says, you love her more than you love Me.

I love her more than I love truth.

Then you love her in weakness, He says.

As You love me, I say, and I go with an apple or carrot out to the barn.

–Andre Dubus, “A Father’s Story”

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Well, I am back, sort of. At any rate I have survived the end of the semester, with all its grading and being graded, and I am happy to say I am now living in a clean apartment.

In a week I’m heading to California for the rest of May, but in the meantime I am compiling summer’s lists. There is a list for writing, a list for teaching (I am preparing to teach a creative writing summer course June-August), and a list for reading.

The last could go on inexhaustibly, if my memory were better. It keeps getting longer as I remember things that should go on it, or discover other things.

At first I thought of this list as divided between Things I Want To Read, and Things I Should Read. But the reality is that I want to read most of the books on it, or they wouldn’t be there to begin with. So the categories end up looking more like this.

1. Things I Want To Read For Pure Enjoyment

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
The Sea Wolf (Jack London)
Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)
A Countess Below Stairs (Eva Ibbotson)
Broken Vessels (Andre Dubus)
The Maze Runner (James Dashner)

2. Fiction I Want To Read To Benefit My Own Writing (but intend on enjoying thoroughly)

The Necessary Grace to Fall (Gina Ochsner)
The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
Winesburg Ohio (Sherwood Anderson … I should have read this ages ago)

3. Nonfiction That Has To Do With Writing and Literary Matters

Mystery and Manners (Flannery O’Connor)
Art and Scholasticism (Jacques Maritain)
A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway)
The StAR Review
AWP Chronicle (I never read this during the semester)

4. Spiritual Reading

Introduction to the Devout Life (Francis de Sales)
The Intellectual Life (Sertillanges)
Truth and Tolerance (Benedict XVI/Cardinal Ratzinger)
Waiting for God (Simone Weil)

That is, at least, a beginning.

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