Summer Reading List

I love summer reading. Most books are better read outdoors–a phenomenon I became aware of during my preteen cat mystery obsession. Sacramento summers provide lots of opportunities for sweaty outdoor reading while guzzling ice water.

Since high school I’ve been using summer to get ahead on my work. There never seemed to be enough time to read everything during the school year, so summer became about preparation. Getting things read so they were off my plate. This didn’t change when I started teaching, and grad school necessitated that I read ahead so I could meet all my deadlines. But the other side of summer reading is freedom. When you decide at age 13 that you’re going to teach English (then write stories, then review them), your normal life is going to mostly be about assigned reading. So many of my summers were the only time to read what I wanted to read. As an adult, I try to make my summer reading list a mix–getting ahead and indulging in something fun. This year is no exception.

What’s on my summer reading list this year? Books of all different types, it turns out. And–as always–the hope that I’ll get through one monster, one Big eFfing Book. The BFB.

Car Buddies

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I happily let Colin Firth read this story to me as I ran errands in my car: Graham Greene’s moody and obsessive 1951 novel, The End of the Affair. I’m haunted by this book in a really good way. Something about Firth’s accent and the structure of the story (maybe the cold way these lovers regard each other?): it begins at the end of a relationship, and it unwinds slowly. I couldn’t get enough. This may be unrelated, but Mr. Firth is invited to drive around with me and tell me any stories he’d like.

Learning Things

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The opportunity to interview David McCullough about his book, The Wright Brothers, for Goodreads was a huge surprise. And he was delightful–speaking with him ranks as one of my favorite experiences, ever. It also earned me more cred with my best friend, father, and grandfather than I could’ve ever hoped for. But even though I was familiar with Mr. McCullough’s work and a huge fan of the HBO series based on his biography of Adams, I hadn’t read more than fragments of his other books. So lately I’ve fallen into a nice rabbit hole of American history. His style is so conversational and easy, and it’s lovely to read to learn about something. I’m not sure if that makes sense? I hope everything I read makes me a little smarter, but usually I’m reading for style and literary content. I’m usually learning about feelings. It’s nice to read for information. It feels like it uses a different part of my brain. I love history, and I’ve loved every page of his work I’ve read.

The Wright Brothers is exactly that, the story of the two Ohio gentlemen that changed the world. The Greater Journey is about Americans in the mid-1800s who went to Paris to learn everything they could; they wanted to go and study so they could bring back art, medicine, and culture. Since I was in Paris almost a year ago, this was really fun–I could picture exactly what parts of the city he was writing about, and I had no idea about most of the history in the book. John Adams was fascinating, and besides giving me even more respect for the relationship President Adams had with his wife, Abigail, it was such an interesting look into the early American experience. It gives me hope that we were so messed up then and we still managed to make it work.

I’m hoping to dive into 1776 next.

Core Work

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Lately I am acutely aware of the relationship of all stories. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m writing this series for Ploughshares, so I’m searching out connections, but I have felt for the last 6 months or so like I’m building a lifetime independent study course. I read things for fun, but even the things I read for fun end up circling back to things I’ve studied. Eventually it’s all material for the same project. This is kind of exciting, if you think about it–I just read this article about biliotherapy and how sometimes books are prescribed to people for various conditions. But I’m thinking of this in a looser sense–I’m building the kind of person I want to be, and accessing the information I want to know. It’s all working together.

So. In that vein, I read Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation. Mostly, I was just curious, since the Arab’s perspective in Camus’ The Stranger is certainly something I’d discussed with my AP students. Camus was huge for me in the years I taught AP English. I talked to Literary Disco about the book just last year. But I’m curious about anything that examines a story from a different side. I read it just for fun, but by the time I finished the (short) novel, I had pitched it as a post. I had too much to say to keep it to myself. So that’s coming soon.

My Brilliant Friends

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Do you ever read books just so you can fit in with your peer group? That’s what happens when you go to grad school. If someone reads a great book, you read it too, so you don’t feel like the dumb one the next time you’re all standing around chugging martinis. Well, you still might, but at least you’ve read all the cool things. You can nod with authority.

My friend group has such good literary taste and reads so voraciously that I can barely keep up. But I finally had time to read Emily St. John Mandel’s excellent post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleventhe other day, and it did not disappoint. And if you like Shakespeare (me!) and Star Trek: Voyager  (me!) there’s a few details that might make your day. My friends, as usual, were right. Station Eleven is thoughtful and well-written. Up next in Books My Friends Said Were Decent is the first in the Neapolitan novels series, My Brilliant Friend. And yes, I do have to look up how to spell Neapolitan. Every time.

Real Work

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I had pitches accepted to review both Phoef Sutton’s Crush and Mia Couto’s Confession of the Lioness in translation. Neither one of them seems like it’s really going to be work to read. Sometimes I can’t believe that reading books is my job.

BFB

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Every summer I read something enormous, something that I think is too challenging for me and something that I want to read just so I’ve read it. Like running a marathon. Summer offers the opportunity to get through something that will take me a looooong time. Something I need to walk through carefully. Slowly. Methodically.

I haven’t decided yet what the BFB will be this year, but right now the two front-runners are Infinite Jest and War and Peace. Really.

Aim high, kids.

I Don’t Want Another Mockingbird

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 1994, as a high school sophomore. It changed me. It was the first book that showed me that stories offer clues about humanity, that they’re full of meaning beyond the literal. That they tap into a need for connection that we feel deeply beneath the narrative. I don’t exaggerate when I say it was reading To Kill a Mockingbird in Ms. McMichael’s 10th grade English class that opened my eyes to the world of literary analysis. I didn’t know I would be a book critic then, but that book certainly set me on the path, and before that it set me on a path to being an English teacher. I wrote my first successful essay on Mockingbird, an exploration of why Mayella Ewell’s carefully tended flowers–red geraniums–mean that she wants more than her sad life. About Lee’s choice of flowers–such hardy, indelicate blooms–that show how everything about Mayella is rough, even the natural beauty that surrounds her. Harper Lee’s book was the first one I wanted to explore, discuss, write about.

Because of this, I’m well aware that my feelings toward the book aren’t neutral. When I started teaching high school English at my alma mater in 2002, I was excited to share Mockingbird with my students (and my heart melted a little if they didn’t love it as much as me). Mockingbird remains a part of the curriculum. It’s a rite of passage. Every student that’s passed through my school has–if not read it–at least endured the expectation that he or she should know this story. It’s cultural currency that we want our students to have.

So in light of this, my reaction to yesterday’s news about another Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, wasn’t so happy. I felt excited for the first few minutes after I heard the news. But my glee faded quickly as I thought about what a sequel (even a related book written before the one we know as the first) would really mean. Sequels almost never hold up to the original. More isn’t always better.

We want more from the world of our beloved characters, but the truth is often less appealing than what we can imagine. It’s too prescriptive. Full disclosure: I don’t read fan fiction. I don’t generally like sequels penned by different authors. It makes me sad that J.K. Rowling has broken her word about not writing anymore Harry Potter stories. Even if a series is imperfect (as I mostly expect it to be), I’m happy for it to be over.

Chasing after more of a character is chasing after a want that can never be fully fulfilled. Once we see Scout as an adult, we have to live with knowing that she was someone else to Harper Lee than she to us. I like to imagine her in her ham costume, her future wide open. I’m free to make what I want of her childhood, of her revelations, and of the meaning of the book itself. I’m free to imagine that Scout is in some ways, like me, and that I can absorb the lessons of her childhood as my own.

Do I imagine the world beyond the known world of books? Outside the boundaries of story? Sure. But that’s part of why fiction is enjoyable. What we learn in a finite narrative is measurable; the lessons of life are not. Fiction has arbitrary bookends of structure, and they are not the same bookends of birth and life that set the narratives of history. The rhythms are different. Fiction isn’t real by virtue of its form if not just its truth, and I would argue that the very fact that it’s incomplete is part of why we like it. We don’t want to know how Gertrude came to fall in love with her murderous brother-in-law or see Walter White teach Chemistry before his diagnosis. Partially, because these things are boring, and we spend our own lives in boredom. But partially because fiction is concentrated magic.

Also, this. One of the hardest things to learn about being a writer is how to edit. Not what to say, but what not to say. Which details to choose and which to leave hidden to your reader. There is a reason this novel was put in a drawer. And now, by all accounts, Harper Lee isn’t healthy.We know her sister protected her until she died. By publishing her novel now, I think we ask something of her that she might not have the capacity to handle: we ask her to abandon earlier ideas of editing, of choosing what is most poignant or most right, in order to satisfy our own greed for consumption.

I’d rather have something brief but wonderful than a glut of sub-par.

That’s what this is, right? We can’t get enough of a good thing. We can’t accept the work that Harper Lee gave us and be a good steward to her legacy. We can’t be a good steward to old ladies, either, because we want the brief illusion that we can quiet our urges to know everything. I don’t like what that says about us.

Miss the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird? Maybe you should just read it again.

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Doing and Not Doing

Mostly, it feels like I’ve been standing in line at Ulta.

Do you notice how there are always about fifteen people working there, yet there is always a line to the back of the store? Hate. Shout out to my new favorite eyebrow pencil, however: Anastasia Brow Wiz in Caramel.

But what I’ve been doing? Teaching. Cat snuggling. Books, and walking to podcasts. Oh, and a short Super-Bowl-avoidance shopping trip.

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What am I not doing? I think that’s more interesting–at least to me. Most of my worry time is devoted to it, anyway. Since December, I haven’t written any fiction. Zip. I tried once and all I got was two confused pages.

I feel like such a loser. Way to use your MFA, HSP. I sent my friend Faye a letter the other day, and I whined about this for about two pages (yep, I totally could have put that time to good use writing a damn story–or, you  know, this time I’m using right here to blog). But I’m struggling to get a story out. Really struggling. Anything.

Why is this? I have all kinds of excuses. The first is that I have been really busy with review work–a blessing, the best, happiest kind of blessing–but this is also a time of change. I haven’t found equilibrium yet. Damn if I’m not predictable about what sets me spinning.

Excuse #2: My whole family has been sick. Fortunately (and it’s just a teensy bit hard to admit this, but I will) I didn’t get as sick as the rest of them because I was the only one who had a flu shot. But one or another of us has been down for about three weeks. Lots of missed work for sickies. I’ve also had some ladyparts problems again, which has meant a shitton of doctors appointments of one kind or another. And a lot of laying down while they put me into giant tubes (nothing wrong, just a hassle, and time). While it’s been a time of gratitude about our double medical insurance, it hasn’t been my most productive moment for the written word.

Excuse #3: I’m trying to lose weight, which means I hate everything.

But so what, Whineypants. I know. None of that matters when it comes to what I want for myself. Do I want to be a writer of fiction? I do. And if I do, that means putting my money where my mouth is. Or maybe a more apt way to say it is that it means putting my butt into my chair. Making myself write the stories that I know I need to tell. Something. I haven’t figured it out yet. I like systems, and for this I don’t have one. Fiction feels like it needs space — in my head and in my day. I haven’t found that. Not that kind, at least.

Don’t get me wrong. Things are good. I have work. I have a routine. I have a way to make it work with my day job and my family. I have myself figured out when it comes to reviewing, and I just recently found my maximum capacity. That’s a strength, in a way, to know how much you can and cannot handle. Now I do.

But this is how it is: the job of critic will always come with crises of confidence. I go along fine, read-read-read, write-write-write, and then I get another wave of who am I to say what I think about a book? Nobody cares about you, English teacher who still lives in the town where she went to high school. That feeling is stronger from time to time and I know to ride it out — it eventually passes. But lately I wonder if I can be a critic if I’m not also walking the walk. If I’m not putting my words on the page, if I’m not sending out stories, do I even get to write about what other people have done? This is just a different kind of worry.

So that’s where I am this week. What I am doing? It’s not work. Not the right kind, at least.