My 2010 in Reading

Shakespeare & Co.

No Reverb10 posts this week, but before 2010 is over I want to write about my year in reading. I used to look forward to writing about my year in music, but as time goes by, what I read is much more interesting than what I listened to. I read a lot this year, and because I was fortunate enough to travel, most of the reading was done in places that weren’t home. The books I remember most vividly are tied to the places I visited; I can’t help it.  This entry is not comprehensive, but it’s what I remember most.

At the beginning of 2010 I didn’t read many books, but I read many short stories. I was looking for tips, reassurance, kicks in the ass. I wrote this entry in December 2009, but it pretty much applies to the first few months of 2010 as well. Related: I read my book so many times during editing/rewriting that it’s hard to look at it anymore. I finally had to crack it open when deciding what to read at launches, and it was a bit painful at first.

I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and loved it so much, but I’ve been saving the sequel, Home. She only has 3 books of fiction and I didn’t want to read them too quickly, I guess. I’ll read it in 2011. But I read Housekeeping in the summer, finished it while on vacation in Rome, and waited a bit before moving on to something else because I didn’t want to wreck the feeling of having read a beautiful, devastating book in a beautiful, ancient city. I read Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean during my first week in Agistri and felt the same way.

Continue reading

Notes on NYC

Times Square

Back home with a suitcase a little heavier from some new clothes, but also new books, including a stack of fresh Elevator Alleys, all beautiful and shiny. New York City was good to us, and it was nice to be there and not feel so harried to do everything. We had time to walk blocks and blocks, to go to some museums and galleries, to sometimes choose to spend a night in so that we could order take-out and gossip with a dearly missed friend, to fit in more meals in general.

The Met

I love the Met. I haven’t been to all of the major museums in NYC, but of the ones I’ve been to, the Met is my favourite. It’s so sprawling and sumptuous, marble statues and amazing furniture, paintings I’ve seen in books and photographs too. And it’s pay by donation, which is appreciated in an expensive city. This time around my favourite things were Stieglitz’s weird photos of Georgia O’Keefe’s hands and the Paul Strand’s portrait of Steiglitz when he’s old and bitter. We took wrong turns trying to leave until a guard directed us past the gigantic Christmas tree. Afterwards we bought coffee and a cupcake and ate it on the steps, and then walked back to Hell’s Kitchen, cutting through Central Park, and once we made it out the other side, it was dark, and all the windows in Bergdorf Goodman were lit up and there were blinding Christmas lights all the way down Fifth Avenue.  (I’m still impressed by all the stereotypical New York City stuff, I admit. I probably always will be.)

NYC book haul

I thought I would limit myself to 3 books, but that didn’t quite work out. (From The Strand and McNally Jackson).

Doughnut Plant

NYC is good for enabling whatever kind of food preference you have because there is such a sheer volume of restaurants and diners and food trucks and greenmarkets and specialty shops. I like a lot of bad foods, but you can get such good bad food in NYC that I find it hard to say no to anything. Bready bagels, which are not as a good as Montreal bagels, but I do concede that they’re better vessels for that magic combination of egg/cheese/bacon. Even better was a fresh buttermilk biscuit, split in half. I had fried chicken that was made from chickens that ran free in Amish country in Pennsylvania before meeting their demise. BBQ, including the creamiest creamed corn, studded with hot peppers. One night we ordered in milkshakes from the diner down the street, partially because I liked the novelty of ordering in milkshakes and partially because I just really wanted that milkshake.

Book launch

The most important reason for being in New York was for Andrew and Michael’s book launch on Tuesday night. Third Ward is a great space in a fittingly industrial area of Brooklyn. We drank book-launch-red-wine and then watched the presentations, first Jean Kahler and Jessica Rowe  for their book, The End of New York, about Staten Island, and then Andrew and Michael for Elevator Alley. Michael gave the room information about this unique/important part of Buffalo and Andrew talked to us about his motivations for his photos.  When the room finally emptied out, we took the subway back into Manhattan and ate late night Italian food. The books are beautiful, the colours just right. Electric Lit wrote about the night as well.

So, thanks NYC. That was fun. I hope to see you again sometime soon.

Recent Reading

There’s this taboo about writing about people in their 20s, that it’s the most boring period of a person’s life to read about. I guess the rationale is that people in their 20s are too old to fall into a good coming of age trope (despite still feeling pretty wide eyed and naive about life), but they’re also too young for any of their actions to have any real weight or meaning attached to them. I kind of hate this rationale, enjoy reading about people in their 20s, and just read 2 memoirs about people in that age period, and they were both fascinating.

I finished Patti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, and their early days living in New York and wanting to become artists. They were young and ambitious and focused, and had no idea what their lives would eventually evolve to. What I liked most about the book was how reverent she was about things she liked, how everything meant something. A gold wire ring, a certain white shirt, books, prints. The memoir is more hagiography than anything, a little overblown, I’m sure, but it did make me realize that I appreciate those kinds of collections as a way to represent a time in your life, a moment. She and Robert turned their objects into collages or poems (which then evolved into photographs and songs).

Sometimes I get preoccupied with wanting to write about Important Things (like, politics, the economy, religion, death), but then I have to remind myself that there are ways to write about this stuff without stating upfront: Guys, this is about politics. I was thinking about this when I read Emily Gould’s And the Heart Says Whatever, another memoir about  a woman in her twenties, also in New York, but unlike Patti Smith writing at the Chelsea Hotel, most of Emily’s writing is done in college writing workshops and a stint at gawker.com. Emily Gould has gotten so much flack for her book, and there’s a certain brand of vitriol that seems to be reserved especially for female bloggers who eventually get book deals (like Heather Armstrong of dooce.com or Julie Powell of Julie & Julia). The biggest criticism of Emily’s book is that it’s pointless: she doesn’t experience any trauma or live anything more extraordinary than dating a dude for a long time and then cheating on him while also trying to carve out a life for herself in New York City. It is, according to the reviews, definitely not a book about “Important Things”. But… I thought it was.  I thought the book did say something about New York in the early 2000s and the effect of the Internet on women growing up today – maybe not obviously, but it was there.

Recent reading

I read Tao Lin’s novella, Stealing from American Apparel, and at first I couldn’t tell if I liked it or not, but I was fascinated by it, how of the moment and specific it was to a particular group of young people who live in New York. Aimless hipsters, I guess, but not like the kind that live in Montreal or Toronto. The New York kind that forget how hard it is to maintain raw vegan diets because there are so many restaurants that cater to that stuff over there. The writing style was particular and deliberately naive and it worked, even if it was sometimes annoying. Also there’s a page that talks about both Lorrie Moore and spicy chicken sandwiches from Wendy’s, and I liked that. So, I don’t know. I did like it. I read it between reading chapters of The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon. It was probably unfair to read those books at the same time because I’d inevitably compare them (Lyon writes a fictional account of Aristotle’s tutoring of Alexander the Great; you can’t get more different), but I needed something contemporary to read at the same time to balance it out. Sometimes historical fiction makes me feel restless. But The Golden Mean didn’t make me feel that way, actually. It was so good and satisfying, the kind of book I can’t shelve right away because I want it around for a few more days, even if it’s just sitting there, hanging out with the rest of my stuff.

Reading, lately

Ok, manuscript has been shipped! Yay.While I wait for edits to come back to me, I have some time to do the things I’ve neglected over the past few weeks, such as writing about what I’ve been reading. And taxes. I really have to do my taxes.

Committed – Elizabeth Gilbert: The most annoying thing about “Committed” was nothing in the book itself, but the reviews. So many of them started off with a snarky comment on how hard it must have been for Elizabeth Gilbert to write a follow-up to “Eat, Pray, Love”. Boo fucking hoo, Liz, the reviewers essentially said. Once that was out of the way, they’d get around to talking about the book. I suppose Gilbert encouraged this – “Committed” actually starts off with a note to the reader where she acknowledges the wild success of her previous book and emphasizes that she wrote the follow up for a very specific audience (a particular assortment of friends) because it was too difficult to write for the faceless hordes of new readers out there. Personally, I wish she hadn’t included the note. I couldn’t help but interpret it as some kind of apology that I didn’t think she had to give us. Anyway, as someone who recently got married, I was looking forward to “Committed”. In the end, I didn’t like it as much as “Eat, Pray, Love”, but that was mostly because I was never as torn up as Elizabeth Gilbert about marriage. It didn’t help that some of the marriage history stuff towards the beginning was dry for me since I had already read/discussed/pondered similar issues in women’s studies classes, read in zines or on blogs. While “Eat, Pray, Love” discussed desires that are universal (world travel, enlightenment, finding hot Brazillian lovers in Bali, etc), “Committed” is more niche. I’m glad, though, that a book like this is on the market and I think it might resonate with some of the women who read “Eat, Pray, Love” but might have never thought about these issues. (Also: I really liked this article by Jessa Crispin, always the voice of reason, defending Elizabeth Gilbert.)

Come Thou, Tortoise – Jessica Grant: I enjoyed reading this book, a quirky/sad/lovely tale about a girl named Audrey dealing with the sudden death of her father and coming to terms with new information about her family. I don’t mean quirky in an annoying way, but genuinely, kindly. For example, a tortoise narrates a section of the book, her father was killed by a Christmas tree, Audrey is called “Oddly” by her family and Uncle Thoby. These are the details that define the book. Odd and sweetly sad.

Consider the Lobster – David Foster Wallace: I’m starting to be ok with the fact that I’m bad at reading DFW’s fiction. I’ve tried to read “Infinite Jest” twice, and I failed both times. Maybe I’ll try a third time before giving up completely. Obviously I must be some kind of fraud to say I love the dude when I can’t even read his major work? Ah well. That being said, I loved these essays (and annoyed Andrew when, months and months and months after the fact I was all “Did you know this about John McCain? And this? And this?” when I read the McCain essay). Also, this is kind of related: someone recently found my site searching “Kirk Cameron Consider the Lobster”. Ha!

Book Update #2

As I mentioned in my last update, my manuscript is due on March 1st. After that I will be working with an editor. When I think about it rationally, I have plenty of time. The bulk of the manuscript is essentially finished – I have 13 stories at various stages. Some of them have already been published, so I can set those aside. Others have been workshopped, read by friends, and have generally been knocking around my brain for enough time that I’m fairly comfortable with them and the rewrites I need to do. The remaining stories are very new, a little raw, written in the past 6 months, as recent as three weeks ago. But as long as the bones are there, I have enough time to work through them. Right?

One of my challenges is firming up a writing schedule. In the past few years my day job has ranged from consisting of soul crushing hours to, more recently, normal ones with certain busy periods. I remember the feeling of starting to work regular hours: I suddenly had so much time! It was amazing that I could come home, cook an actual dinner, work on writing or see friends on a weeknight. I would get so much writing done, I told myself. And I did get more writing done, but because I was never a write every day kind of person, not as much as I had initially hoped. So, in order to rework my internal writing wiring, I’ve been setting deadlines for myself, assigning different days of the week to stories or tasks, and it’s working, I think. I’ll um, let you know.

I’ve also been reading “The Best American Short Stories 2009″, edited by Alice Sebold. Soraya gave it to me for Christmas and it came at a time when I was thinking about what made stories work. I know thought has been put into the ordering of stories in the collection, but I prefer to treat best of anthologies as Magic 8 balls or tarot cards. I read stories randomly, trusting that it will lead me in the right direction. I know it’s kind of new age-y, but this actually works. I mean, I know it’s because a good story will always be a pleasure to read, but seriously, guys, sometimes it’s uncanny. I read Victoria Lancelotta’s “The Anniversary Trip”, a story about a married couple that travels to Paris with the husband’s mother, when I was rewriting a story about a couple that takes a significant trip of their own. I read Adam Johnson’s “Hurricanes Anonymous” when I was fretting about voice, and man, the voice in that story really rings out. I had so much luck with the 2009 collection that I dug out the 2006 anthology, which I had on my bookshelves and, judging by the uncracked spine, barely touched.

It’s my kind of hocus pocus.

To books in 2010!

Over the past 2 weeks, Andrew and I have logged about 4000 kilometres. We started in Montreal and visited various points in the Maritimes (Moncton, Halifax, but mostly Cape Breton where we spent Christmas) and then made a last minute decision to visit dear friends in New York City, driving through Maine (which always feels like the wilder, more remote cousin of Vermont to me) and Connecticut. In Cape Breton, we spent a lot of time doing what you’re supposed to do at Christmas: eating. And I relaxed too, and breathed in a lot of clean, country air, and I read Ghosts by Cesar Aira, a novella set in Argentina. It’s the holiday season in that book too, New Year’s Eve actually, and a Chilean family is living in a construction site that will eventually be luxury condos. Ghosts live in the building too, and they fly around naked and covered in dust and do things like chill bottles of wine for the humans and invite the oldest daughter to a party at midnight. I also started reading Charles Portis’ Dog of the South, and it’s an amazing thing, this book, funny and strange, all these details about characters who get into the weirdest situations (another man has stolen not only Ray’s wife, but also his credit card and car, and Ray sets out to track down the two lovebirds in Mexico), an aimless, sparkling road novel.

Once we left Nova Scotia, there wasn’t as much time to get absorbed in a novel, but whenever I go to New York City I make sure to visit The Strand, the bookstore famous for having over 18 miles of books. The Strand is overwhelming and always packed with so many people and there is something about seeing so many books that sometimes makes me wonder what the point is of ever bringing another book into the world because they’re all there already, shoved into talls shelves or piled on tables, and the prices! The discounts! But that feeling is fleeting and I will amble through and pick up books, put them down, pick up others and usually try to cap the amount I buy at 4 or 5. This trip I emerged with 2666 by Roberto Bolano, another Aira novella, Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace and a copy of Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem which I’ve read, but decided I wanted to own. These books, along with books I got for Christmas (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Virgil’s Aeneid, 2009 Best Short Stories) and a book of essays about photography that I purchased at the Aperture Foundation gallery make up my reading list for the next few months.

I’m excited to read more books in 2010, to discover something that will make me feel feverish and excited or simply understood, that quiet, humming content you get when you read the right thing at the right time. Screw being overwhelmed by books at The Strand – we need all of those books, and more of them, because there are too many moments in our lifetimes and everyone else’s lifetimes that should be documented or reflected or heightened.