Blog Archive for November, 2011

25 Nov 2011

Good readers can handle the truth

3 Comments New and Exciting, Personal Thoughts

Writing is hard.

Anyone who has struggled to compose a basic letter, a clear email, a good essay, or even a simple recipe knows the frustration that arises when the thoughts don’t match the words. These tasks can be grueling and unrewarding, and sometimes words float around in your head all day until you come close to what you mean. But, for those who love to write and have dedicated themselves to the practice, putting it together is joyful, exhilarating, and freeing.

Just last week, a group of book lovers listened as Nicole Krauss spoke of her passion for writing at the Miami International Book Fair. Interestingly, she said that she doesn’t write to entertain and that she strives for her novels to be authentic, alive and necessary. What resonated the most for serious readers is that she knows her audience seeks the truth–and that they can handle it.

Like Krauss, authors are often asked about the writing process. Some fascinating responses include:

  • When  I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth—Kurt Vonnegut
  • You should never write out of vengeance—Ethan Canin
  • A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost—Henry James
  • I write because I want to—John Ashberry
  • I write because I’m good at it—Flannery O’Connor
  • Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way—E.L. Doctorow
  • Good writing is about telling the truth–Anne Lamott

If you are a good reader who is curious about writers and their craft, a few books that you should take a look at are:

  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  • On Writing: Memoirs of the Craft by Stephen King (this book has an excellent reading list at the end)
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott shares a story in her book that helps her with the writing process. She recalls a time when her ten-year-old brother was immobilized by a report he had to write about birds. He was surrounded by binder paper, pencils, and unopened books, and in tears because of the huge task ahead. Her father, detecting his son’s agitation, sat down beside him and said,  “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

How conscious are you of the quality of writing when you read a good book? Do you like the ‘truth’ in your fiction as Krauss and Lamott suggest? Let us hear from you.

15 Nov 2011

What Does Your Bookshelf Say About You?

3 Comments Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

A shelf with many books on itLeah Price, a Harvard English professor, makes interesting observations in “The Subconscious Shelf”  in Sunday’s New York Times.

According to Price, what we display on our bookshelves reflects who we are and how we think, so much in fact that some readers may deliberately place books on their shelves to project a certain image. This triggered some curious thinking not only about what we buy to fill our bookcases but what we actually read and treasure–and, in this age of the e-reader, not only what we read but how we read. What does all of this say about us as smart women readers?

“To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self,” Price writes. Think about the books you keep and consider sacrosanct. Are they the books of your childhood, college years, or those you shared with your reading group? Are there books you feel you must buy as opposed to downloading on your Kindle or i-Pad? How do you make those distinctions? And what about the book snoop…the person who loves to see what someone else is reading on a plane, train, or bus? No longer can you start a conversation with a stranger by asking, “What are you reading?” How does the emergence of technology change who we are as a community of readers?

It’s hard for this writer to think of an electronic device as a book: Reading involves paper and pen and all the responses that are generated….a conversation that unfolds in the pages between the spine, the glue, and all the markings and dog ears that are part of claiming the work as your own. When you open a book, you learn about the reader and what she valued in that text.

So, in the end, what are some books that smart women read, keep, and display? A few titles that might meet this criteria and are worth your time are:

  • Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
  • Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaajte
  • Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons
  • The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
  • and anything by Ethan Canin….especially The Palace Thief and America, America

What books have earned a place on your bookshelf? Let us hear from you.

03 Nov 2011

The Redemptive Power of Storytelling

Comments Off on The Redemptive Power of Storytelling Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, Uncategorized, What You Should Read

There is fiction in the space between
The lines on your page of memories
Write it down but it doesn’t mean
You’re not just telling stories

–Tracy Chapman

Although Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried is ostensibly about the Vietnam War, for this reader it is really a discourse on how narratives shape our past, present, and future.

Through a series of interrelated vignettes about Alpha Company, O’Brien retells and reshapes what they experienced, especially the deaths of his comrades. Seen through the lens of the horrors of war, storytelling becomes an essential coping mechanism for the entire platoon. And for the author, it becomes critical to his sanity after the war ends. The Things They Carried is considered a “ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, and imagination,” and just a handful of writers have offered such insight on the “redemptive power of storytelling.”

In “Notes,†(one of twenty-one chapters in his book) O’Brien examines his own guilt about his fellow soldier Kiowa’s death:

By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field,and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless clarify and explain.

Ands, in “Speaking of Courage,†he writes:

I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don’t. Yet when I received Norman Bowker’s letter it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse.

O’Brien’s book is a must read for Smart Women. It not only reminds us of the psychological, emotional, and physical costs of war but provides one of the best views of why we tell stories in the first place.

For more  on The Things They Carried as well as discussion questions for book clubs, please look at “Other Smart Reads”