Tag Archives: books

The Reluctant Read

28 Nov

Have you ever read a book you were certain you would despise?

Someone forced it on you, for one reason or another—the teacher of a college class or a kindly but pushy relative—and every ounce of you resisted. You took the loathsome lump of a novel in your hands and a frown unfolded from every crook in your body. Your mouth turned down at the sides, your shoulders slumped, your stomach boiled with an unpleasant acid, and you turned to page one.

Stupid, you thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Trite. Dull. Idiotic.

But, if you were lucky, something else started to happen. That relative of yours, who’s actually very intelligent aside from his prescriptions for your life and your reading habits, maybe have given you something good. You squinted your eyes at the page. The acid in your stomach slowly subsided, then transformed. Your dull aching dread became something light—a nervous, floating excitement—and suddenly, beautifully, you were hooked.

Watch out. A book like that can be dangerous. Afterward, you might find yourself irrevocably altered. You might return to that book, year after year, and find it like a lover you can’t quite bleach from your heart.

This week, I finally sat down to read Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, grimacing even as I flipped past praise from The New York Times and one of my favorite and most respected authors, Richard Ford.

Cover of "Both Ways Is the Only Way I Wan...

The truth is, my reluctance to this particular work was born from my own embarrassment. Last year Ms. Meloy came to read at Vanderbilt, and though I enjoyed the reading, I was having a fit of awkward. It comes on sometimes, despite my best intentions at nonchalance, and there I was, fidgeting and unable to speak, when after she sat in the hallway outside the reading room, selling and signing copies of her book behind her plastic foldout chair. The book was around $15—a price I didn’t feel like paying at the time—and there I was in front of her, feeling the money drawn from my hands, and gasping out stupidly that I loved Montana, too! She signed it “For Liz, a fellow Big Sky fan,” and I left feeling outraged at my own jellyfish spine, convinced I would never read her book, more out of principle than anything else.

Over the next few months, I glowered at the book on my shelf. I felt upset when The New Yorker published her story “The Proxy Marriage” in May, and even more upset when I actually enjoyed it. When another story of hers, “Demeter,” was published in The New Yorker two weeks ago, I decided to bring Both Ways home for Thanksgiving break—not to read it, but to pass it off to someone else, so I wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. The book was abandoned to a countertop, and then my cousin—also a writer and reader—picked it up.

“I don’t know about that one,” I said, eyeing it narrowly as she flipped through the first pages. “Don’t blame me if it’s bad.”

But soon she had finished the first story, and over the course of the day, juggling her 6-month-old on her arm, my cousin continued with Meloy’s book. At 11 p.m., she was still reading. All I can say is that I was confused. When I went to bed around midnight, my cousin stayed up with the book.

The next morning I asked her how it went. Guess what? She’d loved it.

So I began to reconsider. After all, it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. After all, my revulsion at the read was petty, idiotic, and nonsensical.

“You’ve got to read it,” my cousin said. “Really.”

“Okay, okay,” I said.

I packed it in my bag, drank a glass of wine as I waited in the airport, and flipped through the pages to the first story. Then I read the second story, the third, and the rest of the book over the next week.

Oh my Lord, was it good.

As George R.R. Martin once said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

For me, good fiction occurs when you are shocked into the consciousness of a fully realized character, in a fully realized situation. Good fiction opens us up to new identities. What’s so wonderful about Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It is that it allows the reader not just to have new experiences, but also to return to something recognizable—to encounter a long lost feeling—really a kind of subconscious tone of experience that’s been buried deep or glossed over by its banal surface. Her stories strike deep emotional notes subtly, gracefully, and with almost no visible artifice. It’s astounding.

As Curtis Sittenfeld put it in his review of Meloy’s collection, “They are people who act irrationally, against their own best interests — by betraying those they care about, making embarrassing romantic overtures and knowingly setting in motion situations they’d rather avoid — and Meloy’s prose is so clear, calm and intelligent that their behavior becomes eminently understandable.”

He goes on to say that her characters act with “a kind of banal, daily desperation”—perhaps that’s the feeling I recognized in myself, when reading her prose.

Every page I turned I heard myself apologizing to Meloy in my head—I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—how could I have dismissed her, this?

At the same time, though, I’m happy with how things turned out. If you’ve hardened your heart to a book, and the prose stills find a way to maneuver through that tough casing, you know you’ve come across something great, something beautiful, that will be a part of you for a long time. Maybe forever.

190347521720777295_2VqSKbmb_c

The Power of Imagination Against Oppression

10 Oct

Why do we read literature?

No, really, why?

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Good literature goes beyond entertainment—it reaches down into the core of us and jerks us back into the heart of the world, into the heart of humanity, into the whirling depths of the human soul.

That is what we need to remember.

Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, came to speak at Vanderbilt today, and I had the chance to attend a student-led conversation with her this afternoon.

Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, is the memoir that describes her experiences as a professor of literature under the rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran. After the revolution of 1978, Iran became a place where religion was a forced act of state rather than a personal, spiritual belief. Reacting to these changes—the enforcement of the veil and the brutality of the Taliban—Nafisi used literature, from Nabakov’s Lolita to The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn, to help herself and her female students understand their situations and deal with their own personal traumas.

At the beginning of the conversation, she took out a manila folder of old family pictures and passed them around the conference room. There was her grandmother as a young woman, and there was her mother, and there she was, too. All of them with full lips and black arched eyebrows, none of them wearing the veil except for the grandmother—who thought of it as a personal choice, and was appalled when the government enforced it on all women.

“Imagine,” Nafisi told us, “if suddenly the United States enforced Babtism— a single denomination of a religion—on an entire country, and told you that you—no matter who you were—had to wear a cross around your neck.”

Imagination—it’s a powerful thing. As Nafisi told us today, imagination is what allows us to have empathy. Imagination is what banishes blindness and unwavering ideology. Imagination is the thing that threatens dictatorship and frightens oppression.

And great literature—Lolita, Gatsby, Pride & Prejudice, Huck Finn, and the rest—is the door that allows us to tap into that imagination and those greater human truths.

“That, of course, is what great works of imagination do for us: They make us a little restless, destabilize us, question our preconceived notions and formulas.” – Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi autographs her book

I loved Nafisi’s analysis of the way stories work—the chambers that they open inside us, the thoughts they stir to the surface, the questions they cause us to ask of authority—and specifically of ideological authority.

The past few weeks I’ve been following a blog, Reading the Short Story, by a retired literature professor named Charles E. May. His blog is rather technical, and not altogether engaging unless you are interested in the components of the short story.  I read May’s blog because I am interested in the techniques of story, and how these techniques can be applied to my own fiction.

In one of his more interesting posts, though, May writes about C.S. Lewis’ distinction between “good” art and “bad” art, and this distinction is at the heart of what Nafisi differentiates as the narrative of the state vs. the goal of literature.

May writes, “Bad art may be “liked,” but it never “startles, prostrates, and takes captive,” says Lewis. “The patrons of sentimental poetry, bad novels, bad pictures, and merely catchy tunes are usually enjoying precisely what is there.  And their enjoyment, as I have argued, is not in any way comparable to the enjoyment that other people derive from good art.”

an imagining - photo of the day for May 13th, 2010Good literature—the literature Nafisi read in Iran—allows for complexity.

Too often these days, we’re polarized, shuttled into different “types” of people and frozen into these limited, suffocating identities. White vs. Black, Republican vs. Democrat, Christian vs. Muslim.

In an essay on the illuminating powers of imagination, Nafisi wrote that, “… a culture that has lost its poetry and its soul is a culture that faces death. And death does not always come in the image of totalitarian rulers who belong to distant countries; it lives among us, in different guises, not as enemy but as friend.” –

Good fiction, then, is our escape—an escape route that leads us back into the wonderfully twisted, amorphous human heart.

Where else do we find the ambiguity we so desperately need? The complexity we shy away from, but deep down—so desperately desire?

Fresh Meat for Turtles

11 Sep

Koi pond

Koi don’t go for worms, and they’re not suckers for bait, either. People don’t fish koi because they’re bottom feeders—fish who spend their time nibbling algae from green-fuzzed rocks—and the koi wouldn’t be tempted by the likes of a flashing hook with a bit of dangling chum. People don’t noodle koi either, because koi aren’t catfish. Koi are ornamental, fat goldfish—sleek orange and yellow darts of flashing scales—and they live peaceful, dull lives, gliding in slow circles around decorative ponds.

My grandfather, always oblivious to such demoralizing information, decided one day to take my brother and me fishing in the Houston city park. There swam the koi, and there stood us, gazing down at their yellow fins batting the water. Grandad smiled, set up his plastic lawn chair, cracked the tab of a fizzy orange soda, and cast his line into the water.

I was eight years old, my brother was twelve, and all that morning we’d dug up earthworms and stuffed their writhing bodies in rusted soup cans. Now we skewered the skinny, wiggling earthworms on our hook, tossed in our lines, and waited. We waited all afternoon, and still the koi did not bite.

“They must be full,” Grandad said. “Or else they’d bite.”

After a long day at the koi pond, we gave up. Those damn fish weren’t interested, and there was nothing we could do to convince them. Earthworms weren’t for them, and that was that.

As much as I hated those stupid koi for not biting, I learned a good lesson that day: don’t waste your worms on the fish that will never bite.

These days I no longer fish. Instead, I write.

I’ve just started my senior year at Vanderbilt University, where I am a candidate for English Honors in the Creative Writing track. This fall, I’ll draft a thesis for a collection of short stories, and next semester, I’ll write it. Better yet, I’m enrolled in a Graduation Fiction Workshop, which will allow me to interact with people who are just as serious about writing as I am.

What an exciting time, right?

What a terrifying time, too—all around us, people are proclaiming the End: if not of the world, then at least of the book.

“The book is dead!” cries the modern-day Nostradamus.

Yet there is the book, like a plague-victim in a Monty Python film, hopping along, crying out in shrill falsetto, “I’m not dead. I’m getting better!”

And here we are, aspiring writers desiring to write. Sometimes, it feels that what waits ahead is the koi pond: me sitting there, at the water’s edge, attempting to bait my line for fish that aren’t even remotely interested.  All the koi in the world have gone off to watch movies and play video games and record episodes of The Bachelor.

Perhaps this analogy is falling through. Let’s try another.

Summertime, and I’m in my grandfather’s backyard. Blackberries are plump and full in the heat, and the garden is sweet with the smell of figs. A mockingbird sings from the branches of an oak tree.

“Let’s buy a chicken,” Grandad says.

My brother and I are perplexed, but not surprised. My grandfather often surprises us, and besides, it’s hot and we’re bored. So we go with him. We walk to the grocery store, and Grandad buys one whole chicken, still wrapped in its thin plastic sheath.

We follow Grandad back from the store. Instead of making our way back to the house, we trot down a steep, weed-lined hill to the Braes Bayou, a concrete-lined tributary that cuts through my grandfather’s neighborhood. The water is murky and smells faintly of sewage. Green algae floats on the surface of the water. My grandfather unwraps the chicken from the plastic, the tremors from World War II still shaking his hands. The bird is plump, it’s flesh pink and dotted with bumps where its feathers have been plucked.

Grandad takes one step back and swings. The bird makes its final flight through the air, then lands with a giant kerplop in the water. It bobs, settles, and floats. Nothing happens. Then—movement. A turtle head rises to the surface, then another. Suddenly, there are twenty of them, with thin red stripes on the sides of their faces.

“Red-eared gliders,” Grandad explains. “They like chicken.”

The turtles circled, then bit. They tore off chunks of pink bird meat with little jerks of their heads.

Wow,” I said, marveling. “There are so many.”

Grandad nodded, grinning. “There sure are.”

There are some people who will never read—just like there are some koi that will never bite. But then again, why fish, when you can feed?

_Box Turtle eating 5958.JPG.xcf

The World Must Be All Fucked Up

24 Jul

“The world must be all fucked up,” he said then, “When men travel first class and literature goes as freight.” – Gabriel García Márquez

Sorry, books, but it was the only way…

And with the packing of the books, you know we’ve come to the end of the Georgia days.

Hunter S. Thompson, American Legend

27 Jun

Last weekend while I was in Austin, I met Alan Rinzler, the man who published and worked with Hunter S. Thompson, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, and Bob Dylan, among others.

He told me that Hunter S. Thompson was a crazy guy—erratic and a little paranoid, a writer who believed that the editor (in this case Rinzler) was the enemy.

Rinzler also said that Thompson had spent an entire summer in an apartment in Chelsea when he was young, typing out The Great Gatsby just to get a feel for the rhythms of Fitzgerald’s sentences.

It’s odd to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (or watch this somewhat bizarre interview with Letterman) and think of Thompson in Chelsea, a young guy aspiring to be a writer—just as we aspire to write—and doing so in a way that seems both naive and a little desperate.

As Thompson later wrote, “Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality.”

Now Thompson, a man more legend than most, has joined Fitzgerald in the ranks of the great, illusory heroes of American literature.

Which makes me ask one important question of myself: where in the hell did I put my copy of The Great Gatsby?

Richard Ford’s Canada

20 Jun

“It’s interesting to leave a place, interesting even to think about it. Leaving reminds us of what we can part with and what we can’t, then offers us something new to look forward to, to dream about.” – Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s latest book Canada has received fantastic reviews, and I’m excited to put it on my book list. According to The New York Times Book Review, it is “a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.”

I’ve only read his short story collection, Rock Springs, but it was fantastic.

Here’s my tribute to Rock Springs, his collection of short stories.