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Posts Tagged ‘rosemary reads’

Anti-Baxter?

Currently reading chapters from Charles Baxter’s book, Burning Down the House. I like his fiction, what I’ve read of it–partly, I suppose, because it’s set in Michigan, but also the flavor of it. I used “Snow” in the class I taught this summer.

But I am not really liking these essays. They are too antagonistic, for one thing–which I think is deliberate. I suppose it may just be that I don’t agree with him. Flannery O’Connor’s essays about writing could also be seen as antagonistic, but I always think she’s right.

There is really no point to this post except to say I’m not enjoying reading Baxter, which is a disappointment to me. In fact, I ought not be blogging right now at all. I am ridiculously busy, because I got no work done this weekend, because I got engaged Saturday morning. That has a way of distracting you.

Happy Tuesday to you all.

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The week before last my Readings class read Didion’s essay “The White Album,” the first line of which is a famous quote of hers: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I have seen this quote pretty often, and have probably used it more than once. It stirred me in the deepest places; it rang as true. It’s always presented as inspiring, affirming–which, standing there by itself, it is.

However, “The White Album” is one dang depressing essay. At the risk of being too reductive, the feeling it leaves you with is that the stories we make of our lives are largely meaningless and artificial. Although she is a writer, and thus always creating stories and attempting to impose meaning on events, she ends the essay by saying:

Writing had helped [Paul Ferguson], he said, to “reflect on experience and see what it means.” Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”

Although I’ve gotten better at reading stories as they are, I occasionally struggle with projecting a tone or atmosphere on them and rejecting them for something that isn’t there. For example, when I first read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, I didn’t realize it was funny. I thought it was horribly depressing. Then I saw Smoke Signals and thought that perhaps I shouldn’t have written a long letter to my cousin complaining about how awful the book was. When I reread parts of it they make me laugh.

So it is quite possible that when I say I sense this meaninglessness in Didion’s prose, I could be reading it into the stories myself. I sense a searching, a struggle, a determination to try and make meaning anyway; but in the end the best you can do is make yourself feel a little better. And it makes reading Didion unpleasant for me, unless I really zero in on the craft of her sentences, her dialogue, what a marvelous talent she has.

This week one of our readings is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Joel asked me to present it–whether by intuition, perception, or chance, I don’t know, but I am very grateful–and in fact, I am a little stuck, because she lays things out so clearly there’s not much more to be said.

This presentation is actually what I should be working on right now.

It’s due tomorrow evening.

BUT. This post is relevant.

One of the things Flannery explains is that she does not write “to make the reader see what I see,” and that writing is not “a missionary activity.” This is very different from Joan Didion’s statement that writing is a hostile act, “of saying I, of imposing upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.

But this springs from an even more fundamental difference in their views of writing and what it does. O’Connor sees stories as aiming after truth. Not truth as an abstract concept, but as expressed and embodied in reality. This is what makes writing art. She explains:

[…] all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in manner and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.

(See? How am I supposed to talk about this, when she’s already explained it all so beautifully?)

Flannery O’Connor believed in the vision of truth her stories presented. Joan Didion, it seems, didn’t believe such a vision was possible. I admire Didion for continuing to write nonetheless, for looking chaos in the eye and staring it down. But whose stories are more powerful?

To search for truth seems one of the fundamental marks of being human. To believe what you’re searching for isn’t possible is madness.

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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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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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