Seattle is a beautiful, beautiful place. I mean that in several senses: 1) The climate here is beautiful. I know everyone thinks, “Seattle, oh yeah, the weather is always rain, rain, rain.” But really, it’s more like drizzle, sun, drizzle, sun. Which is quite a pleasant way to spend your winter when you call home and hear the daily details of the polar vortex: 40-below-zero windchill and 5 feet of snow. I’ll take my mist and frostbite-free fingers, thank you. 2) The scenery here is also beautiful. The majestic mountains (the corny alliteration really does fit). The massive trees. The abundant water. Did I mention those mountains? 3) Then there is the part that is actually relevant to this blog: the literary scene here is such a beautiful thing. I think we owe a great deal of this amazing culture to the joint efforts of the Richard Hugo House, The Elliott Bay Book Co., and the Seattle Public Library. This powerhouse team is responsible for a multitude of classes and events. Most notably, they bring in awesome writers to read and speak. A few months ago, I had the pleasure of listening to Karen Russell speak, and just a few nights ago, I had the opportunity to see another MacArthur fellow, Dinaw Mengestu, who read from his new novel, All Our Names.
In sticking with the word of the day, especially since it is utterly true, I must say that I thought All Our Names was a beautiful novel. I read it about a month ago, and you can check out my full review here. Dinaw is also an eloquent and captivating speaker. After he read an excerpt from his novel (in a voice that I feel is best described as simultaneously compelling and soothing), he answered questions from the audience. He offered very intelligent yet also very kind answers to sometimes-frustrating questions about his first language (very much English) and his thoughts on the “immigrant narrative” (a term he had to explain twice he disagrees with), all of which were insightful and admirable. I’ve definitely added his first two novels, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air, to my reading list.
The first time that I heard the name ‘Jennifer Egan’ and it stuck was in a writing class – someone in the class had called to attention her habit of handwriting first drafts of fiction. With an affinity for pen and paper myself (five-year-olds are more dexterous on a keyboard than I am), I made a mental note to check out her work. I knew little beyond this tidbit about Egan, although I learned quickly that she received a Pulitzer for A Visit from the Goon Squad. That seemed as good a place to start as any.
When I first started reading this work (I use the word “work” to avoid terms that aren’t really applicable, namely “novel” or “short story collection”), I didn’t fully grasp what I had gotten myself into. I soon discovered that A Visit from the Goon Squad is a series of linked narratives. Some people might refer to it as a short story collection since each chapter is a standalone unit (I actually reached one of the chapters, “Out of Body,” and realized I had already read it as a selection in The Best American Short Stories 2011). But that basic characterization does not capture the complexity of Egan’s work. Each story has a character that you have seen before or that has been mentioned before, often in another place and time. I can sense the skepticism that my description might be eliciting right now: I myself was skeptical, particularly when I was flipping through the book and noticed there’s a PowerPoint slide chapter. That’s right, I mean exactly what I said – instead of paragraphs of text, there is an entire chapter that is composed exclusively of PowerPoint slides. I’m all about being “experimental” and “different,” but I become wary when I sense that an author is about to try too hard to be original. I find that such labors often become inaccessible.
My fear was unfounded. A Visit from the Good Squad is an amazing feat of literature – despite my trepidations that the masses of characters would be hard to follow, I found that I often remembered where I had seen people before, and even if it was hazy, the stories often didn’t require me to recall much of anything (Jennifer Egan is emphatic about this point in interviews about the book). And I truly enjoyed the PowerPoint chapter. I have no idea how Egan pulled that one off, but she did. If that achievement alone is not enough to inspire you to check out this book, then perhaps the subject matter is – Jennifer Egan’s stories are linked not only by characters, but also by such universal and engaging themes as music and the passage of time.
I think we can all agree on something here: libraries are the greatest. Recently, though, I keep experiencing this strange phenomenon: I put a bunch of books on hold, and suddenly they all become available at the same time. I am convinced there are some mysterious library forces operating for this to transpire; I placed these holds at various times and found myself in vastly different positions in the waiting line – position 14 on 8 copies and position 244 of 6 copies, for example. Yet somehow, I receive three of the five books I have on hold at the same time. Fortunately, this time around, I was up for the challenge, and (also fortunately) these three novels happened to be skinny books.
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell – This book is absolutely charming and fun. I have read both Eleanor & Park and Fangirl this past year and have thoroughly enjoyed Rowell’s sharp wit and engaging writing, so I was eager to check out Attachments at a friend’s recommendation. I hadn’t realized that Rowell had written any adult novels and was thrilled by this revelation (this novel was actually Rowell’s debut). While this book does not deal in issues as heavy as Eleanor & Park, and some may argue that the plot is as predictable as a romantic comedy film, sometimes a rom-com is exactly what a reader needs (at least this reader). And this book certainly delivers; despite its ordinary set-up in terms of plot, the structure of the novel is original and the characters’ banter is so smart that I was satisfied, and I found myself thinking about the characters long after the final pages.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – Unpredictable. That is the word that comes to mind when I think of my experience with Neil Gaiman. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is my second Neil Gaiman novel (I also recently read Neverwhere, an undeniably intriguing adventure tale). As in Neverwhere, I found myself in completely uncharted territory with this tale. Gaiman’s work is so wholly unique that curiosity is a huge driving force for me as I read his books. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quick read (we’re talking less than 200 pages) and I recommend it on the grounds of Gaiman’s imagination alone.
Looking for Alaska by John Green – As noted in one of my previous posts, I finally read The Fault in Our Stars a while back, and I capital-L Loved it. This book was no different. John Green truly is a master writer. He creates such genuine, empathetic characters and his prose is witty and it flows effortlessly. He takes on dauntingly tough situations, doesn’t sugar-coat anything or lessen the impact of tragedy, and you come out the other end feeling like you’ve experienced something transformative.
At this point, I’ve trimmed my holds list down to two books (by Rachel Kushner and Chimamanda Adichie – woo girl power!), but I’m currently in positions 219 and 431. And we all know that my literary enthusiasm will lead me to continue adding to that list before either of these arrives (I can’t help it!). Let’s just hope the library gods don’t challenge me with five long novels this next time. Just in case, I should probably keep working on my speed-reading.
Last Friday night officially solidified my literary icon, my I-want-to-be-you writer: Karen Russell. I first read one of Karen Russell’s stories in a creative writing class I took in the fall — “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” fit right into our discussions on “genre-bending.” It also fit right into my list of favorite short stories (a relatively new, but rapidly growing list). I was drawn to Russell’s exquisite language — her word choice, syntax, and imagery are all so unique, so sensory. I decided to move next to her most recent story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and I have adored every story in that collection that I have read so far. I dream of concocting sentences half as masterful as hers. Russell came to Town Hall Seattle last week, and I was thrilled to attend (she thanked the audience for coming to see her on a Friday night — is there anything I would rather be doing at that time? Hah. Absolutely not). We were all well-rewarded for our presence. Karen Russell is as charismatic in person as she is on the page. Smiling and joking her way through the night, she offered insight into why she writes, and why she writes what she writes (she decided to beat us to one of the most common questions she receives: “why do you write such weird stuff?”). I had the chance to speak with her briefly as she signed my book, and she was so approachable and personable, I left feeling both inspired in my writing and dazzled by her wit and her warmth. I’m definitely checking out her novel Swamplandia! next.
My experience reading Karen Russell’s stories and hearing her speak aligned well with the theme of a writing class I just started: women writers and their reception in the literary community. The topic of this course couldn’t be timelier, given that 2014 has been dubbed “the year of reading women.” This recent declaration brought about a lot of mixed feelings in our class the other day, and I have to admit, it stirs up a lot of conflicting feelings in me — as a woman, as writer — as well. In essence, at the heart of the discussion is the gross disparity in the number of male vs female reviewers, reviewed works, and publications in literary journals. On the one hand, I am grateful for the attention that “the year of reading women” draws to this issue (although VIDA has done a fabulous job spreading awareness for several years now), and I am also pleased that some people are finally taking action. On the other hand, the notion of a year dedicated to women writers (and “writers of color” mind you, since it obviously makes sense to lump together everyone who is not a white male) somewhat perturbs me. It comes off a little condescending: “Oh here ya go, ladies. You can have 2014 all to yourselves.” What?! Does that mean in 2015 we regress to our former white-male-dominated reading lives? It also doesn’t do anything to eradicate the divide – it just calls more attention to the so-called “difference” between male and female work. It’s an interesting objective nonetheless, and I will be sure to follow the progress of this project throughout the year. Before recently, I had never considered my chances of succeeding in the literary world to have any correlation with my gender. I sincerely hope that 2014 is a year to change my odds, and the odds of women (and writers of color) everywhere.
I realized this past summer that I missed a Sarah Dessen book. I don’t know how I let that happen. I blame my transition into adult working life for this mishap. Regardless of the reason, when The Moon and More was released in June, I discovered that I also needed to read What Happened to Goodbye. So I had myself a Sarah Dessen summer, which was a pleasantly nostalgic experience. I associate many of the events of my late high school and early college years with the Sarah Dessen book I was reading at the time: junior prom, Just Listen; winter break senior year, This Lullaby; summer before college, Lock and Key.
Then, more recently, I caught wind of some Sarah Dessen news, and my subsequent series of reactions was perhaps a bit melodramatic: momentary doubt, succeeded by surprise, followed closely by intrigue. Apparently this superstar author of 11 YA novels had decided to drop the story she was working on. I needed to investigate. I went to her official website, and sure enough, her most recent blog post was entitled “Abandoning. And listening.”
I actually highly recommend this blog post not only to Sarah Dessen fans anxious to know more, but also to all aspiring writers. Sarah has a lot of good things to say about knowing when to let go of a writing project. She shares the emotional turmoil of “abandoning” a project, but she also describes the first time that she learned to trust her gut, and how her gut was providing answers without a trace of doubt: “For me, it was not ‘Give up on this book, you know, if you want.’ It’s like Darth Vader voice: PUT IT ASIDE. NOW! NOW!!!!’”
According to her blog, Sarah started working on a new story in January 2013, but it wasn’t right. She battled against her story from the start, both internally and on the page, and there were many times that her experience contradicted her typical style and process. Acting on advice from a friend, Sarah is determined not to publish a book that does not measure up to her standards. We’ve all seen too many of those novels, and the authors aren’t fooling anyone. We, the readers, we can tell. I commend Sarah for honoring the quality of her craft. With humor and grace, she speaks candidly about her trials and her fears and the finality of her decision. Fans will surely be disappointed by the wait (her story had been on track to be released summer 2015), but wait they will, for the honesty of this acclaimed writer’s decision is admirable.
It’s that time of year again: everyone is picking their “Best of 2013” lists. From Amazon, Goodreads, and Barnes & Noble to Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, the members of the books industry are all selecting their top reads of the year. So I had two thoughts: 1) Hey, I’ve read more than 10 new books this year and 2) Hey, making lists of my favorite things is usually pretty fun. Thus, here it is: the best books that I read that were released in 2013.
- The Golem and the Jinni — I can’t say enough good things about Helene Wecker’s debut novel. Her style reminds me a lot of Elizabeth Kostova in The Historian (which I loved) — impeccably elegant writing and seamless integration of mythical and fantastical elements into realistic settings. Chava is a golem, Ahmad is a jinni, and they meet by chance in New York at the end of the 19th century. They cultivate an odd friendship as they both struggle to integrate into human society.
- Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell was on a roll this year. Eleanor & Park was released in late February and Fangirl in September. I couldn’t resist the urge to call out Eleanor & Park even though I only put Fangirl on the list. But really, I wanted to put them both on the list (it just seemed a little greedy to put two Rainbow Rowell novels on the list when there are so many fabulous books). Both books are wonderful and brilliant – the one thing I would say, however, is that Eleanor & Park is a bit heavier than the fluffier (though still sufficiently deep) Fangirl. I highly recommend both.
- The Cuckoo’s Calling — Obviously this book got a lot of hype when Robert Galbraith was unveiled as none other than our beloved JK Rowling. While her initial post-Harry Potter attempt, The Casual Vacancy, received severe critique, this book was better received. And for good reason. Check out my earlier blog post for further gushing on the matter.
- The Coldest Girl in Coldtown – I was skeptical about this book. I don’t typically do the “fad genre” thing – zombies, werewolves, vampires. But when three anti-vampire colleagues of my mine told me this book was aaaaaaa-mazing, I decided to give it a try. They were right. So my advice to you: drop your prejudices and read this wild, gripping, and wholly unique novel.
- Burial Rites – I had the pleasure of interviewing the very eloquent, very young Hannah Kent regarding this novel, her debut. Burial Rites is historical fiction at its finest – a historical Icelandic murder trial, to be exact. Check out my interview with Ms. Kent for more.
- The Circle – This was my first Dave Eggers book, and I definitely see what all of the fuss is about. His writing is truly captivating. I will certainly be checking out his other books. See “The Eggers Epidemic” for more of my thoughts on The Circle.
- The Universe Versus Alex Woods – This book did not seem like the type I would normally go for. Honestly, I can’t even remember what inspired me to pick it up in the first place. But I’m glad this unlikely scenario occurred, because this book is truly wonderful. At its heart, this book is the tale of the friendship between a misfit boy who is impressively (though not obnoxiously) optimistic and a crotchety old man. The book tackles some major philosophical and moral questions about life and death in a smart and engrossing way.
- The Girls of Atomic City – Girl power! No, but really, this book is wonderful. As the subtitles suggests, this book is about “The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.” Denise Kiernan captures the voices of women who were recruited to go to a secret city (Oak Ridge, Tennessee) to help with an undisclosed mission to win the war. Amid the stories from women who are now in their eighties and nineties, Kiernan inserts chapters about other intelligent women who played central roles in scientific developments in WWII.
- Humans of New York – This beautiful new book originated as a photoblog in 2010, when Brandon Stanton started wandering the streets of New York, making portraits of strangers and conversing with them (he adds quotes from his conversations as captions to his photos). The photos are stunning and vibrant and alive. I actually met a girl who was featured in the blog when I visited New York – she is a waitress with gorgeous rainbow hair and radiates a joy that is arguably brighter than her hair. This book is so much more than a coffee table book.
- St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves – Okay, this one might seem like cheating — this short story did not come out in 2013. But I have recently started reading a lot of short stories (heretofore a shortcoming of mine), and this is the best short story that I have read this year. And I feel like I can get away with it because Karen Russell released a book of short stories this year: Vampires in the Lemon Grove, I’ve also seen and/or read a lot of interviews with Karen Russell and think she’s awesome.
On my night stand:
Between classic novels that I’m itching to read and contemporary works that are stirring up the lit scene, my reading list has really gotten out of hand recently. Two 2013 novels that are on my nightstand waiting to be picked up (hopefully over the holidays) are The Goldfinch and The Interestings. There are so many great books and so little time, which brings me to my disclaimer: my list might look a little different if I had as much time to read as I desired. But, as it was, this is my list — make of it what you will. Happy reading!
My reading list just grew by four books and my YouTube time is climbing exponentially. The root cause of this activity increase? John Green. People have been telling me for a while now that I should really check out John Green, that I would really like his books, that he makes these great videos, etc. I’ve been putting it off this whole time because the book people kept telling me to start with, The Fault in Our Stars, is notoriously sad. I feel like I need to be in the appropriate mental state to commit that kind of emotion to a book. I should have known better, however, since I have the exact same history with the movie Up. I put it off, then I put it off, and then I put it off some more, until I finally forced myself to hunker down one night with a big ol’ box of tissues and watch the damn thing. Obviously, I loved it. It’s a very lovable movie. I was so ready to be depressed that I was surprised when I felt so uplifted (I can’t decide if that was intended or not — seriously though, I was trying to avoid saying “inspired” twice in a row), and I barely touched the tissues (side note: did you know that Up is based on a true story? Apparently it was inspired by a little old woman in Ballard, Seattle who refused a million dollar offer to leave her home. Check out the book).
The Macefield House, Seattle
Anyway, needless to say, I loved The Fault in Our Stars. John Green is indeed brilliant, and his writing embodies everything that I admire in teen fiction: charming wit, intellectual references, and genuine feeling. Yes, the story is intrinsically sad — The Fault in Our Stars is the tale of two young cancer patients who fall in love. Despite concocting a plot-line that is an obvious formula for distress, John Green skillfully navigates the intricacies of life as a teenager, and more specifically life as a teenager with a terminal illness, in a way that does not send you, as a reader, into a pit of darkness. The characters are not perpetually morose, but their emotions and reactions are very sober and real — far more real than those of the inspirational cheer-leading persona that we often like to attribute to valiant young cancer fighters (mostly to make ourselves feel better). Nevertheless, Hazel and Augustus maintain their humor and cleverness throughout, and their love radiates throughout the novel without ever entering mushy territory. I am eager to read the rest of John Green’s works (you’ll find no more hesitation here) and to follow his video blog, vlogbrothers, on YouTube. And while I will always believe in the book over the movie, I will definitely be seeing the film version of The Fault in Our Stars promptly upon its release next spring.