I’ve said it before but now more than ever, this is important. We all need to read books written by people who don’t look like us. Here are three that I’m reading this week and each one is valuable, readable and satisfying.
Alexie, Sherman. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a Memoir. Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Lene Indian, writes with his usual wit and depth about his childhood through the lens of his complex relationship with his mother.
Qin Xiaoyu, ed. Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry, translated by Eleanor Goodman. Jared Smith, Director at The New York Quarterly Foundation, writes in his back-cover blurb: “These poems are a wake-up call for poets, scholars, and humanitarians everywhere.” He’s right.
Smith, Tracy K. Duende, Poems. Smith’s book won the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. She is our current U.S. Poet Laureate.
Let your library and bookstore know that you value books that enlarge your world, and I welcome your additions to this list. If you send recommendations via the comment option here, I’ll add your ideas next week. If you add your voice to mine, we will have an impact on the racial tensions in the USA and the world.
One of my favorite books is The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. It’s about passing along the gifts of creativity–writing, visual art, music, etc. It came up again this past week with a group of writers. But what if the gifts I give are less than perfect, not even close? After all, would I give someone a bald tire, a torn shirt, half a jar of peanut butter? I wouldn’t give stale bread to a starving child.
And what constitutes a real gift, as opposed to a gift to my own ego? “Look at the wonderful poem/book/photograph I’ve made.” Gifts are meant to signal generosity, not grandiosity. I remember a segment of the TV show Friends, in which Phoebe tried to give a gift that did not in any way serve her. She found that it was impossible, because she felt good about giving, thus the gift was never pure.
Gifts from writers are never pure either. The writing is never perfect and the writer’s pleasure in sharing affects the giving. But we still must move the work on. It’s a bit like raising a child and sending that kid out in the hope that he or she will be a friend to someone, a loving spouse, a hard worker. Poems, essays, and stories are our offspring, and sending them out is an act of faith, however flickering that faith may be. We cannot give without receiving, and maybe that’s the best gift of all.
You know my four words? The ones I use to describe the writing process? Commit, Discover, Create, Connect–those words? This week has been rich with the fourth word. I’ve connected with more writers and readers than I can count without boring you. And this morning I’m off to a workshop with Columbine Poets in Denver that will add to the list and then to a reading at Book Bar this evening. I just counted up my connections and it seems that I meet other writers at least twenty times in any given month. There are poets, memoirists, technical writers, science writers, novelists, beginners and professionals. There’s a pheromone that draws writers together.
Connection is in the air. Sitting with my cli-fi writing partner yesterday it turned out that the five women sitting along the back wall of the Brewing Market at Basemar in Boulder were connected by twin threads of science and writing: we two writers of climate fiction, an environmentalist, a science professor and a middle school teacher who has her students write regularly. Within minutes ideas were flying and contact info was shared. How did it happen that we five were in the right place at the same place at the same time? Fate, good luck, predestination? Any or all of these.
If you carry the image of writers as lonely depressives in cold garrets, rethink it. G0 out into the wider world, let your writing show, flash that notebook, show off your laptop, keep business cards handy. Strike up conversations. You’ll honor your commitment to BE a writer, even in public.
“A book report is an essay discussing the contents of a book, written as part of a class assignment issued to students in schools, particularly in the United States at the elementary school level.” So says Google. I dreaded that forced march through long prose to prove that I had read the whole book. I coughed up the plot, the conflicts and the characters. Stated the theme of the book. Convinced my classmates and the adult with the red pen why I liked or disliked the book. Seemed to me there were only two choices, neither one comfortable. What did I learn from these assignments? I learned to hate book reports, and some kids learned to hate books.
Therein lies my angst over writing book reviews, the grown-up version of a book report, minus the spoilers. Yesterday I chatted with an editor seeking a review for a poetry book he has in hand. I once knew the poet well. What if I don’t like the work? What if I cannot gush and praise and send readers rushing to their bookseller for it? What if I feel merely tepid about it?
Must I warn a vulnerable public to keep away from dull, clumsy books? With so much new poetry, fiction, and memoir to choose from–probably half a million books published annually just in the US–I can do readers a favor if I warn them about the flaccid, florid, horrid books that usurp valuable shelf space in libraries and bookstores. Or I could wax wise and inflate my ego by elevating my taste to the measure of all things literary. Well, my grandma told me that if I couldn’t say something nice to shut up. Granny was sometimes right, so I deflected yesterday’s editor toward a new book of poems that I am excited about, that I can honestly recommend and not sound like a snob, a paid hack, or a crank.
The Great Wall of China, built with slave power about the third century BC was ineffective against invaders. Now it’s a tourist site. The Biblical Old Testament tells us about the Battle of Jericho: “And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the horn, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.” Hadrian’s Wall was built in 122 BC to protect the northern boundary of Roman Britain. It did not keep out the enemy. In 1961 East Germany built a wall of wire and concrete. It came down in 1989. My dictionary defines a wall as “a rampart built for defensive purposes,” meant to enclose, to divide, to confine, to block off.
Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall” begins, “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall …” I’m with him. But of course, I live within walls, feel safe and sheltered by the sturdy walls of my home. But these walls are pierced with doors and windows that can provide access, welcome, or escape, as needed. Defensive walls, historically, have not guaranteed safety from intruders. They are costly failures. They are not permeable and can imprison those on the inside. Like Frost, something in me doesn’t like such a wall.
I’ve moved dozens of times and in those moves I tried to free myself of the weight of books. It has yet to work. The books sneak back into my home like stray cats. And this week I had a lesson in the joy of owning them–the books, not the cats.
Reading a library book, I saw what looked like an unintelligible couple of lines quoted from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. These poems are dense and ask a lot of a reader, and despite having read them numerous times, I didn’t quite trust myself to say, oh, yes, typos in an expensive tome of criticism. Didn’t dare say “Gotcha” to an editor from Harper Collins. Hurried two or three steps to the Es in my collection of poetry, and felt momentary panic–where was Eliot? Aha, the coy, slender volume was hiding between Stephen Dunn and Sharif Elmusa.
But my memory was right, two words were missing initial letters in the quoted passage. My copy of the poems saved me from booting up the Mac Mini and waiting for the wifi to open, and then the bother of typing in the search box, and watching the screen light its way into the labyrinth of Eliot’s work to find those wounded words snapped off like glass twigs.
Best of all, I had that little book in my hands, the feel of its sleek cover, the little head shot of T.S.E, a facsimile of his signature, the praise from John Crowe Ransom on the back cover, and inside the familiar dots of red ink I often use to mark memorable lines, my very own Four Quartets. And I read it again straight through, brushed my teeth, and went to bed happy and vindicated.
I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.
Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.