Things I’ve Read – Summer 2014 Edition

It’s been a good summer for books!  I have to say that I’ve tried to quit audible several times over the past few years, and I always go back to it because it’s the only way for me to afford new books.  I still can’t retain things I read on a screen (kindle or otherwise), so it’s books or audiobooks for me.  And audible is a deal if you want to read/hear books that are still in hardback.  Here’s what I’ve read this summer.  Some I’ve loved more than others.  I’ve starred the ones I’d recommend.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche *

Remember Me Like This, Bret Anthony Johnston  *

An Untamed State, Roxane Gay  * 

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris  *

Dreaming Yourself Awake, B. Allan Wallace (when you need to control even your dreams)

Elizabeth Bishop -Life and the Memory Of It, Brett C. Millier *

Shirley, Susan Scarf Merrell

Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson  *

The Metamorphosis  (Sara Bernofsky translation)

How to Read Literature, Terry Eagleton

Poems, Poets, Poetry, Helen Vendler  *

Blasphemy, Sherman Alexie  *

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The Harlem Hellfighers, Max Brooks  *

Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor  *

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, Jessican Abel and Matt Madden  *

The Gloria Anzaldua Reader  **

Admittedly, several of these were re-reads for a new class I’m designing.  Still on my re-read before fall shelf is Zami by Audre Lorde  *, The Stranger by Albert Camus, Macbeth, and the damn Canterbury Tales.

I attended a training that confirmed both my hatred for group work and my blind desire to impress even the crankiest of instructors are still intact. Even though we are a room full of teachers, we quickly devolve into caricatures of our own students.  DudeBro talks A LOT, but doesn’t know what “prose” means.  Doctorate politely listens and nods, all the while dying inside because there are no jobs in academia.  Flatiron gets so frustrated with a difficult poem that she loudly reports to HATE It Because It Makes No Sense.  Genderqueer confuses people in the bathroom and refuses to explain the origin of his/her middle name, even when asked outright.   High Heels refuses to put away her ipad, even after being asked about twenty times. Quiet Guy is brilliant.  And judging.   And then there are some genuinely nice people who never get to say a word.

overhead

It is good practice to put teachers back into frustrating classroom situations where they have little power.  The instructor held our 30 hours of inservice over our heads as though they were grades, asking us to sign in and out with specific times.  We had little say over how we were to work and how we spent our time (two afternoons were spent in useless field trips).  I always leave these situations with much more compassion for my students, who are forced to navigate these class structures every day in seven different classes.  Even though we’ve got small classes, those dynamics don’t cease to exist.  I made several pages of notes just about how I need to change my own classroom expectations and structures to make sure that everyone has a little bit of say in how they work (alone or in groups, quietly or with music, at home or in class, on a screen or by hand, etc).

 

 

 

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The Next Step

I’ve got a story coming out in Heavy Feather Review this summer, and it’s another story about a trans person. I think I’ve written exactly one story that’s not about a trans person.  Even in that one, there’s a secret trans teenager in the background.  She only has one line of dialogue, but I’m pretty sure she’s thinking about coming out to her best friend in the drive-through lane of a Starbucks.

There’s no shortage of writers out there talking about rejections and how to deal with them, so I don’t have much to add to the conversation about that. Thank god for the internet, though, because it really IS nice to know that someone once told Alice Munro that her work was unsaleable.  And Octavia Butler, and everyone else I love, probably.

In truth, I don’t usually mind rejections, because it means that someone read (presumably) the first paragraph of my story before shooting me a polite no-thanks.  It means that I’m still in the game, that I had something to send out two months ago, and that I might have something to send out in another few months or so.  I’m not terribly prolific. 

It also helps that I’ve been a reader and editor for a few publications, and I know that when I’m rocketing through a slush pile, I’m not thinking personal thoughts about the writer or feeling competitive or like I’m Ruler of the World.  I am just looking at the writing and wishing sincerely to be moved.  That helps.

There is one rejection, however, that I do wish to talk about, because it causes a different kind of anxiety, and not one that is wholly about writing and/or publishing.  My story collection, which is a bunch of stories about trans people, was rejected last year from a trans-centric publishing house for being a little too “Trans 101.” They’re looking for the “next step in the conversation.” I got it, immediately. They were right; my stories are full of fucked up self-loathing folks stumbling through transitions they don’t want to deal with.  Or running away from transition, or running away from someone trying to beat the shit out of them.  Or they’re just already dead and pretty cool with that.

What I wonder is this: when writers are obsessed, is there a next step in the conversation?  I can’t help but think that I will need to come to some sort of peace with transition before I can even start to consider the next step, and I cannot imagine being at peace with transition.

 I know it happens for some people.  There’s a river to ford, a safe place to bank on the other side.  Then it’s over, and everyone (including you) moves on.  Drivers licences are different, names are printed in the paper, nobody tries to punch you in a public bathroom.  However, It’s been 13 years and I still can’t make a solid pronoun choice.  What’s more, I don’t even want to.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to participate in the next conversation when it happens.

My favorite writers, the ones to whom I return frequently, offer me the consolation of similar obsessions.  Every story I read by Michele Faber, for instance, or Rachel Ingalls, or Shirley Jackson, or Octavia Butler, unsettles me in familiar and winning ways.  I can return because I have not outgrown their prose, and I don’t have any answers to the questions posed.  Often, I don’t even remember the stories – I only know that when I open the book I will be reminded, and then mystified again.

I don’t have any answers here, either, only questions about how to write a story outside an obsession.  Why would I spend my time writing that story? I probably wouldn’t.

 

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walls and bridges

1. The Question: I never know how to respond when my students ask me why we have to read so many books about “different cultures.”  My first reaction is anger – an unwieldy, emotional kind that is impulsive and cruel.   It is precisely for this reason that I always keep a cup of iced coffee nearby.  I reach for it when I need a few seconds to think about how cool it is to have a job.

If I’m lucky, I can compose my face into a generous smile and begin to ask students questions about what they deem to be “different” about the culture in the book at hand.  Eventually, after much pencil tapping and shrugging and uncomfortable side-eyeing, we reach the groundbreaking conclusion that the book is not solely about A White Straight American Experience.  The students repeat phrases like “it hits you over the head,” and “rubs your nose in it,” as though they’re being potty trained by a sadist.

If I’m not feeling so lucky, I’ll say something about literature being a conduit for all human experience and leave it at that.  After all, we have syntax and shit to talk about.  I’ll promise myself that I’ll  dedicate a Research Sunday in the near future to the answer for this question and I’ll promise myself that I’ll get it right next time.

Both responses are wrong: incomplete, superficial.

2.  The Walls:  In the Time of the Butterflies, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Life of Pi, The Awakening, anything by Gloria Anzaldua

Nick Hornby reports crying tears of frustration at the hands of Iain M. Banks’s Science Fiction novel Excession in a 2005 Believer column.  Even the blurb on the back filled him with terror.  I feel similarly when trying for any point of time to make headway into The Fellowship of the Ring or the first book of The Game of Thrones.  I want the experience of having read these books, because I want to participate in conversations about Ents and Dire Wolves when they are happening around me (as they often do).  However, I don’t want the experience of ACTUALLY READING the books because I hate them.  I don’t know why.  I do like dragons and Renaissance festivals.

I have a wall when it comes to detective series novels.  I’ll read a one-off thriller with no problem.  But as soon as I turn the book over and see that this same detective is making a return visit to the pages, I suddenly can’t be bothered.

Another wall: All Historical Fiction.

This doesn’t mean that I am particularly snooty.  I’ll read just about anything about a serial killer, a school shooting, or a person who rides horses.

All readers are going to have natural walls.  Some books need to be read anyway.

3. The Bridges:  Fight Club, Fist Stick Knife Gun, Gilgamesh, Hamlet,  Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

I guess it’s not rocket science, but it will take more than month of Research Sundays to figure out how to teach students that walls are sometimes worth scaling (especially since I can’t read a book about a dragon), and experiences are worth reading even if no one is interested in appropriating the coolest parts.

 

 

 

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I see a long journey and its end.  The face in the crowd is yours.  I see a long journey and at the end of the day the face in the crowd belongs to you.  I am reading something.  You think I forgot this, but I didn’t.  I am reading something and you are listening and we have never met, so it’s the end of a long, long journey.  The face in the crowd is yours.

Once, it happened in a town far away from both our homes and I forgot to look for you because I was so nervous.  After I read, sick with a fever that refused to abate for days before or after, I stood, sweaty and bigger than everyone there.  I just stood there and didn’t look.  If ever, at the end of a lifetime of years, you are finally there, I might forget to look.  I might miss your face.

There is only one lifetime of years, and it’s the lifetime or the years, never both.  You have to choose.  These hands are ten years older and ten years more beautiful; the scar from our time is still visible on the middle knuckle, the biggest one, the busted one, the one that grew back strong and crooked.  It is because you are not dead.

The dead are gone and about them I am wistful with eyes full of stars and dreams that bend hard upon the violence of loss.  You are not dead, and I am not wistful.  I am curious about your voice and the way you get in and out of a car, the way you order a coffee and snap a red leash onto your dog’s collar.  I am new and whole and curious now, and it was a long journey that’s now at its end.  All our memories are of things that never happened.

There is one picture of us that I still like.  You are seated at an outdoor café in Fredricksburg, and the sun is just about gone.  You are probably having peaches or something. Your teeth are big and bright in the dusk, your eyes in shadow.  The darkness looks to be coming down the street, rolling in on a cloud.  You don’t know it’s there, and neither, probably, do I.  There’s a book in your lap – one that I bought you and wrote your name in.  One you sold later, after. The darkness has already made a home in your eyes, but all I see is love.  I am not in the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

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A trick of the weather; a day like another

I’m happy the holidays are over.  I’m usually happy when they arrive, but I’m always more than ready for things to get back to normal.  I like my job, and I like my routine, and even though I love presents and I adore my family, I kind of wish that Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year happened every third year.

It’s been a good fall for me, though.  My new story “Field Trip” is up at Devilfish Review.  There are other stories I like in this issue, as well, namely In A Bubble, a weirdly disturbing 1001 Nights trip.

I had a fabulous time reading submissions for the second issue of Interfictions Online in August and September.  So many of the stories were interesting, and a few were truly great.  It was the best kind of work.

I’m making good headway on a novel, thanks to this interesting and fruitful 9-month workshop lead by Manuel Gonzales.  It’s the friendliest, funniest, most productive workshop – worth every minute.

Haul of the season (gifts, purchases, and books kindly lent):

A couple of these books I procured at Malvern Books, a new small-press book shop in Austin.  I had no idea what kind of shop it was, and I fought bewilderment as I browsed the books on my first visit – I didn’t recognize many of the books, and the ones I did recognize I already had.  It took a few minutes to realize that the shelves were filled with books that chains (and even Book People, the big Indie here in town) would never touch.  It’s a miracle store.  I’ve been back a few times, and each time I leave with something I probably shouldn’t have spent the grocery money on.  Please – the two of you who read this sometimes-blog -say a little prayer for this book store’s business.

malvern books

They have a neat blog going, too, full of interesting reviews and information – like this post about publishing that features prominently a cover of Mary Jo Buttafuoco’s memoir about pyschopaths and the people who love them.

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Summer is Over

Weather Update:  Summer is over, officially, and though we were promised a cold front today, it’s still about 96 degrees outside in Austin, and about 99% humidity.

Publication Update:   It’s been a while since I’ve had anything new accepted.  It’s been over a year.  That’s a while.  But there’s a new story on the way!  You’ll be able to read it soon in Devilfish Review, where there’s already a lot of weird stuff you can read right now.  I spent the better part of a year writing this story (called “The Field Trip”),  all the while trying to write something I thought was more important.

Books Update: I spent the summer reading so many good books.  I read a lot of pretty mediocre and terrible books, too, but that is what happens while reading.  I haven’t been reading online at all lately, which was the original reason for starting this blog.  I’m linking to Powell’s since they’re not Amazon and they’re in Portland, but you can probably find e-versions of all of these.  Since my tastes run murderous and weird,  I only recommend the following if you are feeling particularly good about the decisions you’ve made in  your own life:

 

Music Update: Many thanks to Waterloo Records and their eclectic listening stations.

Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever seen.  It’s a gorgeous concept from start to finish – album art, video, arrangement, lyrics.  All of it.  It’s just an experience that I’m glad I had.  They are playing tonight in Austin, and I’m not there because my dog’s head is in a cone and he’s really upset about it.

Shirlette Ammons‘s album Twilight For Gladys Bentley has been on repeat since May.  This album’s namesake, Gladys Bentley, was a poet, musician, and entertainer who was openly gay and genderbent.  Shirlette is honest, funny, and pissed off about all kinds of interesting stuff. This song, Fast FWDing is by far my favorite, but I’m a fan of Take A Chance, as well.  Especially the part about the cat.

Whitehorse’s “Devil’s Got A Gun” has got to be the best song I’ve heard in years.  Here is a live version that sounds like a bad dream you’re not upset to revisit.  The album version is terrific, too.  After the top of your head is blown off during the bridge, the ending harmony is like a revelation.  I have listened to the song many times solely to hear that last line.  They’re Canadian.

I know Mal Blum has been around for a while, but I only just discovered her music this past March at SXSW.  She was unbelievably cute, and her bassist and drummer were also unbelievably cute, so I was prepared to hate her music because I thought it would probably be unbelievably cute. The past few years I have developed a very real aversion to silliness, playfulness, and general cheer.  But then, she sang this song.  I was completely wrong about her.  She hadn’t released her newest album Tempest in A Teacup yet, and I have only heard parts of it.  However, you won’t be upset if you download the following songs from Everywhere You Go Somewhere: Watercolors,  Circus Heart Part II, New Year’s Eve, San Christobal.

Also, here is your new internet girlfriend with a guitar, Laura Tsaggaris.

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The Woman Upstairs

I’m reading Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and having an exceptionally good experience with it.  Every time I hit a dry spell with books, I become irrationally convinced that I’m never going to find another one that doesn’t leave me shrugging, and that books are done with me. I’ve hit the end.

For instance, I’ve been slowly reading Allegra Goodman’s Intuition for a month, feeling the entire time that I might have read it before.  It is just unfamiliar enough to make me question the things I am sure I already knew.  It’s good, but it’s not spellbinding (probably because I’ve read it before).  And I listened to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, salivating the entire time.  It was fascinating, but I was reading the book.  Not the other way around.

woman upstairsThe Woman Upstairs has complete control of my imagination right now.  I don’t even care how it ends.

Here is a review of the book by Lionel Shriver, who also owned me for the few days it took to read We Need To Talk About Kevin.

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May 27, 2013 · 3:40 am