I always wondered what could take writers away from their blogs for so long that their readers (all 14 of you! sob!) stop checking back for new posts. Most bloggers claim work-related issues, or a new baby, or an unexpected health problem. For some it’s a vacation.
For me, who knows? like Facebook says, it’s complicated. Some of it was just getting too caught up in work and some was lack of inspiration and I’ll try to touch on that here, because they’re interconnected. But whatever it was culminated in an insane decision to turn down a week in cool(er) North Georgia, sitting around in a cabin near a lake, so that instead, I could spend my days outside in 95 degrees, under a blistering sun, tending my never-get-enough-sun vegetable beds, creating a small rose garden at the foot of our driveway and digging two new borders so we could divide and transplant some mutantly huge hostas. Pruning shrubs was also on the agenda, as well as yanking up about two dozen pine/maple/holly saplings that evidently grow four feet tall overnight.
Brilliant, right? All good, diligent, necessary adult work in the name of home improvement, a term I once heard only from my parents or read in newspaper articles.
When it was all done, I kept staring out at my neatened yard and new plantings, wondering where the pride and contentment were, why I had an urge to sit down on the back steps of the deck and cry and make the cat sit on my lap. I had dutifully completed all my chores, when what I had really wanted was to do a whole lot of nothing. What happened?
When I’m lyin’ in my bed at night
I don’t wanna grow up
Nothin’ ever seems to turn out right
I don’t wanna grow up
How do you move in a world of fog
That’s always changing things
Makes me wish that I could be a dog
When I see the price that you pay
I don’t wanna grow up
I don’t ever wanna be that way
I don’t wanna grow up—Tom Waits
Everyone needs time to do nothing. Being able to retreat from the world is part of the alchemical process most writers need before they can burrow down into where all the good stuff lies. And bring something back. It’s the privilege of children to be able to play without having to prove they’re learning something or contributing to society or paying the bills.
Know what? I could use a place like this right about now:
Or one of these.
I would not do anything but read and scribble and make semi-magical connections between what I was reading and thinking and everything that had happened lately or in the past year. I wouldn’t come inside and prepare dinner; someone would have to make sandwiches for me and leave them at the door in a paper bag.
I would only pad up to the main house for a coffee refill.
And these are the books I would stack on the desk or table to read. Or pile in a beach bag. You can also think of them as my suggestions for reading to take on any kind of summer vacation, even if it’s a staycation out in your back yard. Most, but not all, are new.
More writers I know like Beard than any author I can think of in recent years. Really. Everyone. Her first book is a collection of essays about growing up in the Midwest, but it includes a piece called “The Fourth State of Matter,” which is first, about divorce, secondly, an aging pet; finally, a mass shooting at the University of Iowa campus where Beard worked in 1991.
In the porch light the trees shiver, the squirrels turn over in their sleep. The Milky Way is a long smear on the sky, like something erased on a blackboard. Over the neighbor’s house, Mars flashes white, then red, then white again. Jupiter is hidden among the anonymous blinks and glitterings. It has a moon with sulfur-spewing volcanoes and a beautiful name: Io. I learned it at work, from the group of men who surround me there. Space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe. Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet.
Read the rest here.
I have a reader’s copy of this intriguing book, which is about a couple, Caleb and Camille Fang, who are guerrilla performance artists, along with their two children, Annie and Buster. They stage scripted but ludicrous events in public places, most of them geared to attract crowds and with high shock value. The Fangs get free publicity, win substantial arts grants, travel around the country and have had books written about them (Once Bitten: An Overview of the Perplexing Art of Caleb and Camille Fang). The kids go along with it, acting their parts. Then one day, Annie and Buster come home to find the house empty and a note in the kitchen: We have art to make in North Carolina, it reads. We’ll be back in a few days. Don’t go in our room. But in a few days, a policeman calls, telling Annie they’re officially a Missing Persons case. There have been murders in the area where their van was found. Annie’s sure it’s another stunt: “They are not dead Buster,” she tells her less certain brother. “They are doing what they’ve always done; they are creating a situation in order to elicit an extreme emotional response from those closest to the event.” But which is it?
Wilson had a stand-out story in last year’s New Stories from the South called “Housewarming,” about a father and son pulling a dead (a very dead) deer out of a frozen pond together. You probably know someone, somewhere, who could make something like that harder than it needed to be. Like the man’s son.
Reviews of Heathcock’s acclaimed short story collection, set in a fictional midwest town, suggest this his work is similar to that of one of my favorite writers, Charles D’Ambrosio (The Point, 1995, The Dead Fish Museum, 2006): dark, intense, bleak, violent, grim. But always shot through with the light of love. This is probably the review that sold me.
Read an excerpt from “The Staying Freight.”
If You Knew Then What I Know Now, Ryan Van Meter
See my review. I loved this touching and beautifully written series of linked essays about growing up gay in Missouri, uneasy parents and loving grandma and all. It can be read in one gulp or savored for about a week, if you can stand to put it down. I read it too fast, and now I want to reread it.
Wingshooters, Nina Revoyr
After reading a review of it in Shelf Awareness, I jotted this title down in my To-Read notebook. This is not her first novel; she has three others, including Southland, an LA Times “Best Book of 2003” and Edgar Award Finalist. The narrator of her new book is a 10-year-old girl born in Tokyo of a Japanese mother and American father. The marriage was conflicted—“they always fought in his language”—and by the time she is 6, her mother is gone for good, and her father drops her off with his parents in Deerhorn, Michigan. The only addition to Deerhorn more foreign—and threatening— than Michelle LeBeau are the black couple who arrive in town a few years later. See her website for more info and an excerpt.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
A recommendation from my good friend Dave, the brilliant! funny! editor of the Emory Quadrangle magazine, who never steers me wrong. It’s set in Japan at the turn of the century, when the country was cut off from the West except for one, small Dutch outpost. Jacob, from Zeeland, arrives as part of a contingent of Dutch East Indies officials sent to scour the corrupt trading station’s culture, and promptly falls in love with a Japanese midwife who is also the island’s resident physician. It always takes a while to get fully engrossed in Mitchell’s novels, so a beach/mountain vacation offers the perfect uninterrupted setting.
I’ve never forgotten the Scholastic paperback biography, Dr. Tom Dooley, My Story (1961), that told about the hospitals Dooley established in Southeast Asia and the many lepers he treated. It’s my guess that Neil White didn’t read this book when he was 12, nor had he ever given lepers much thought until, following conviction for bank fraud, he found himself in a minimum-security prison in Carville, La., housed in the last leper colony in mainland America. Though he’s first terrified, he later advocates for the lepers when the decision is pending to evict them—some who had been there since they were children.
Started Early, Took My Dog, Kate Atkinson
Atkinson writes a kind of hybrid of mystery and novel. I’ve read two (Case Histories, One Good Turn), and am always satisfyingly mystified by the way she forges connections between her cast of characters—most of whom have never met. Janet Maslin gives the new novel a glowing review. Bookbrowse has an irresistible excerpt.
The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Michael Sims
I’ve always liked E.B. White’s letters and essays better than, say, Stuart Little or Charlotte’s Web. Sims says that White was a painfully shy child who felt closer, though, to animals than people. He lived his life without straying too far from home. He never flew in an airplane. It should have limited his world, but it didn’t.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how those of us who stay close to what makes us feel safe may sometimes be better off than those who obey that terrifying imperative to “do something that scares you every day.”
Maybe, like Elwyn Brooks White, you write for the same magazine for most of your adult life (the New Yorker), stay married to one woman (Katherine), live in the same farmhouse in Maine until you die, and write letters about one of your favorite foods in the world, Franco-American spaghetti:
I find it the most convenient of all foods because while it is warming in the saucepan I keep tasting it to see whether it is warm enough, and by the time it is warm enough to eat, it is all eaten, so that means there are no dishes to wash — all I have to do is rinse the empty saucepan and hang it up on its nail over the stove. If everybody knew my secret it would revolutionize domestic life in America.—April 4, 1954, Letters of E.B. White
This all ties in, mysteriously, with my current feeling that for many creative individuals, sticking to your comfort zone may be intimately connected with inspiration. I’d like to know just how much yard work E.B. White did and how he was able to parlay it into his writing. I already know, from reading “Death of a Pig” (Essays of E.B. White), that a minor domestic tragedy inspired one of his best-loved children’s books.
Best Science and Nature Writing / any edition
I can’t imagine how you could go wrong with any of the Best series from Mariner Books: the Best American Short Stories, Essays, Mystery Stories, Nonrequired Reading, Travel, Sports Writing and now Comics, each one with about 20-25 essays. The Best Science and Nature Writing 2000 is another recommendation from my friend Dave, who sent me Anne Fadiman’s heart-wrenching piece about a rafting trip (Under Water), which also includes writer Judith Hooper (The Three-Pound Universe), who writes about Amherst researchers who think that many human traits may come from infectious microorganisms. Just as I suspected. Also thanks to Dave, if I can’t find the Best of American book, I would gladly go with…
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach
…because there is an essay in her book about the practice of steeping human body parts in honey to be used as topical and oral medicine, and Dave only sent me a teaser for it, so I really need to know more. I’m not sure if this is the same piece referred to in the Publisher’s Weekly review about her trip to China in search of the cannibalistic dumpling makers (mfghmph.). I hope this book doesn’t turn out to be a curiosity-killed-the-cat selection.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis has translated Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and Proust (Swann’s Way). She was once married to Paul Auster. She writes about love gone bad and obsessive characters who don’t even pretend to let go and move on. This passage is everything I love about the relentless urge to analyze which some of us (not me, of course) experience at certain stages of a relationship:
I get home from work and there is a message from him: that he is not coming, that he is busy. He will call again. I wait to hear from him, then at nine o’clock I go to where he lives, find his car, but he’s not home. I knock at his apartment door and then at all the garage doors, not knowing which garage door is his—no answer. I write a note, read it over, write a new note, and stick it in his door. At home I am restless, and all I can do, though I have a lot to do, since I’m going on a trip in the morning, is play the piano. I call again at ten forty- five and he’s home, he has been to the movies with his old girlfriend, and she’s still there. He says he’ll call back. I wait. Finally I sit down and write in my notebook that when he calls me either he will then come to me, or he will not and I will be angry, and so I will have either him or my own anger, and this might be all right, since anger is always a great comfort, as I found with my husband. And then I go on to write, in the third person and the past tense, that clearly she always needed to have a love even if it was a complicated love. He calls back before I have time to finish writing all this down. When he calls, it is a little after eleven thirty. We argue until nearly twelve.
Many of Davis’ stories qualify as flash-fiction—James Woods says her “smallest pieces are sometimes sweet jeux d’esprit, and are like the captions you might encounter at a contemporary art installation.” In his review, Colm Toibin quotes an especially fine example of this, the two-sentence long “Spring Spleen”: “I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly. Soon they will hide the neighbour and her screaming child.”