A quick rundown of what I’ve read in the past two months in books (there was no December post), and also just a few online articles that intrigued me in some fashion.
Dear Mr. You, Mary-Louise Parker (memoir told in letters) – Hands down, one of my favorite books I read this year. I will return to it again and again. Her voice—stunning. I aspire to write like that.
The Mountain Story, Lori Larsens (fiction)
Mosquitoland, David Arnold (fiction) – I really, really liked this book. Page turner for sure, and the perfect shortish kind of novel I was looking for during the holiday season. Thank you, Nina Badzin, for recommending this to me.
Very Good Lives, J.K. Rowling (graduation speech) – I love commencement speeches. This one is spectacular—funny, wise, and inspiring.
We Live in Water, Jess Walter (short stories) – I am new to him and passed by his novel Beautiful Ruins a million times in the bookstore (and still haven’t read), but I stumbled upon this book in the library. I enjoyed many of the stories. And, confession time: all this time I thought “Jess” was a woman author. Ahem.
[redacted] – I’m not going to call this book or author out by name, but it was a DNF for me very quickly into the book. Why? The editing. So many cliches and lazy writing. I was annoyed. But more than that? It was a book published by National Geographic and less than 20 pages in a glaring error: spelling the country Colombia as Columbia. I never shut a book so fast. Maybe it was unfair but it made me find the book less credible and I couldn’t go on. Why do I mention it here? Because even bad books teach us, especially those of us who write ourselves, about how we can be better. Nobody is perfect, but with that many eyes looking at a book before it gets published it made me squeamish.
The People in the Photo, Hélène Gestern (novel told in letters and photo descriptions, translated from French) – Interesting concept for a story and I largely enjoyed the book, but the ending left me underwhelmed a bit.
Passing, Nella Larsen (probably more novella than novel, published in 1929) – There’s a backstory about why I read this one recently. I actually picked it (and others) up in the fall while stopping at my favorite used bookstore near my dentist. I tossed it into my TBR bin. But then Maureen Langloss (also former attorney turned writer), a Twitter friend of mine, mentioned on Twitter in the wake of David Bowie’s death that it was on his Top 100 books, and she planned to read it. I never responded to a tweet so quickly, and mentioned I had coincidentally picked the book up a month before and would love to read it in tandem. When it comes to the painful subject of how blacks were (and still are!) treated in our country, I think this book is a must read, and my thoughts about it probably deserve a separate post. But Maureen did write about it, and you can see her very eloquent, honest post here.
Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (memoir/essays) – I can’t believe I hadn’t read this before. What a lovely, poignant book, one that I think many women of around my age and/or similar station in life would enjoy. It’s quite short and can be sipped slowly like a cup of tea on cold day. It brought much warmth to my soul.
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris (part memoir/part science text) – This book is not for everyone (heck, Sam Harris is certainly not for everyone) but I enjoyed parts of it very much. It had been on my nightstand for ages and I finally finished it.
Mortality, Christopher Hitchens (memoir/essay) – In a very lean book, Hitchens (now deceased) sets forth in his usual fashion a raw, honest take about his last year of life while he is dying from esophageal cancer. This man can write (which I already knew from his Vanity Fair columns and another book of his I read) and there is certainly a gaping hole in the writing community without him. [Side note: reading Harris and Hitchens back to back made me realize that I sense a lack of atheist women who are also strong writers, though maybe I haven’t found them yet? I’m committed to finding out.]
Thunderstruck, Elizabeth McCracken (short stories) – I stumbled upon the short story “Thunderstruck” in The Best American Short Stories 2015 and knew I had to read more of her work. (If you are looking for new writers to explore, I highly recommend BAS. I’ve bought it for the past few years now.) Many good ones in here. She’s got a great imagination and a keen sense of nuance in a scene and in dialogue.
Space lovers! Look out your windows early next week. Some amazing sights to be seen—five planets at once! Slate has more.
Grumble. This short piece from The Atlantic has my “I kept my last name” hairs on end.
I am not a reader or watcher of Game of Thrones. But, I was still very humbled by this blog post from George R.R. Martin, writer of those books. Dude, if he struggles with getting the creative flow, why am I beating myself up from time to time? Even the greats have their moments. I think it’s important for all of us to remember, whether we are consumers of that creativity or try to work side by side making our own happen. And then support each other when the chips are down.
Aerogramme Writers’ Studio has this list of some 2016 short story writing contests, for any other short story writers out there (there are hyperlinks to contest info embedded in each bold header).
If you’ve read something great recently, tell me! I know so, so many are reading When Breath Becomes Air right now (and I will get to it too), but what else? I need something gooooood.
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz
A day early this week in order to leave space for technology free Thanksgivings for all of us. A quick rundown of what I’ve read in the past month in books, and also online articles that intrigued me in some fashion.
A light month for me—I spent a lot of time writing but also mostly because I started and didn’t finish three books that just weren’t holding my interest (those are not mentioned here). Incidentally, none of these are recent publications except the novel and memoir I’m still reading.
The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Thomas Lynch (memoir/essays) I absolutely loved this guy’s take on so many things. I think there’s a lot of good insight to be had from someone who deals so regularly and closely with death. I need to re-read some of these again.
“Fall” from Seasons at Eagle Pond, Donald Hall (essay; there is one for each season, but I just read “Fall” for now) So lovely. He’s relatively new to me (just this past year), but I’m increasingly a fan of his.
Getting a Life, Helen Simpson (short stories; note: it was originally published in the UK under a different title, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life) I liked many of these stories. Such sharp, relatable wit about women and domestic life.
Around the House and in the Garden, Dominique Browning (essays) My heart swelled with many passages. A book about divorce in the context of the home, tending a garden, and raising a family. I will come back to this one again. Can I share a passage with you? It was after she stumbled upon an old photo of her son when he was seven:
I told a friend about this bit of accidental tourism into my past, and he counseled me to stop looking back. But it isn’t that I wanted to live in the past; that seems a dry and dusty path to wander. I don’t believe in the past perfect, and don’t yearn to return to any particular moment. One of the benefits of growing older, it seems, is a greater comfort with the simple present. It is from that vantage point that we find beauty in the accumulation of details. “Live in the layers,/Not on the litter” writes poet Stanley Kunitz. His desk overlooks a compost heap in his garden. The layering takes a long time; just as true of people as of things. For the past is what we have made of our lives, and to have a past—and to learn from it, honor it, and celebrate it—is a great luxury.
(still reading) The Mountain Story, Lori Lansens (fiction)
(still reading) Like Life, Lorrie Moore (short stories)
(just started) Dear Mr. You, Mary-Louise Parker (memoir in letters)
From Fusion News, a piece about how the beloved Richard Scarry books have been updated to be more progressive and inclusive.
On BuzzFeed Books, an insider’s view from the great Lincoln Michel about what it takes to get published in a lit mag.
NPR’s the salt has a take on why eating out alone is not necessarily the worst.thing.ever (I like eating out alone but many of my friends unequivocally do not).
Thank you, BookRiot, for this fun list of famous authors’ Myers-Briggs Types (I’m an INTJ, every single time).
Check out this one from the Stranger about what happens when scientists and poets study together. I loved the idea so much.
From The Atlantic about the rash of teenage suicides in Silicon Valley. It will break your heart, but I also hope we will now all talk more openly about teenage suicide, depression, and anxiety. Please also read this equally important follow up response from members of that community.
This one might appeal to writers in particular. It’s hard, I think, to stay certain that any writing we do means anything, has any worth beyond frivolity, when things are happening like the fatal terrorism in Paris, Beiruit, Mali, Iraq, Nigeria . . . an endless list. So if you feel that way, please read this from National Geographic. I think it is completely on point about why it is still OK, necessary perhaps, to keep writing.
From NYMag’s The Science of Us, a piece about the science of longtime couples who die in temporal proximity.
Lastly, a good note to end on. I love sunsets, as any of my Instagram followers must know by now. Have you seen this? I definitely will rely on windows and my eyes more than an app, but this Slate piece about some new sunset forecasting technology definitely got me excited.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. We got another day, perhaps the most important thing to be thankful for.
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
Last Thursday of the month, so that means a quick rundown of what I’ve read in the past month both in books, and also online articles that intrigued me in some fashion.
How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature, Scott D. Sampson (nonfiction/parenting) [skimmed only—I wasn’t learning anything new, to be honest; there are others I’ve already read in this genre in years past]
Lillian on Life, Alison Jean Lester (fiction) [one of my two favorites this month]
The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, Jessica Lahey (nonfiction/parenting) [really well done—some solid advice in here]
A Year By the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman, Joan Anderson (memoir) [my other favorite this month; that passage above had me thinking for a while]
The Turner House, Angela Flournoy (fiction) [incidentally, this first novel is a 2015 National Book Awards Finalist, and Flournoy is also one of this year’s 5 Under 35 Honorees of the National Book Foundation—it is so easy to see why; compelling read]
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert (motivational)
I Was Thinking . . . , Peter A. Gilbert (essays) [any book that has essays mentioning Steve Martin, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and a love of reading will get a gold star from me]
(still reading) Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World, Linda Hirshman (nonfiction)
(still reading) The Undertaker: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Thomas Lynch (memoir) [oh my, this one is so good]
This Kirkus Reviews piece about Diana Nyad’s new book Find A Way just might get me to read the book.
Glamour reminds us why apologies in person might be better than by text.
I’m a ways off from an empty nest, but this Cognoscenti essay slayed me nonetheless.
Some fantastic tips/reminders from Tremr if you are submitting work to lit mags (or thinking about it).
Ever wonder what happens in those “write an essay to win a B&B contests”? Then read this piece from NYT.
I’m a huge Virginia Lee Burton fan. This New Yorker piece reminds me why.
I’ll read any article that discusses the choice that some women (like me) make to keep the name they were born with despite getting married. This Guardian piece offers a new twist on that topic.
I have very passionate thoughts about this one in particular and the language we use when talking to children. Thank you, NYT Motherlode, for writing this one.
Tell me what books or compelling articles you’ve come across in October. I’d love to know!
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
I hope you’ve enjoyed the new format of posts I’ve been running on Thursdays. I’ve only written two so far (Scrambled Eggs and Family Tree), but I’ve already found freedom and comfort with this “If you ask me how . . .” approach. It’s been a good shift for me.
But on the last Thursday of each month, I’ll list books I’ve read over the month, and any essays/articles that really piqued my interest. If I think a book was particularly well done, I will note it; otherwise, I will refrain from recommendations in this space. That said, if you really want to know my thoughts about a particular book, you can just ask in the comments and I will respond offline.
Pieces of My Mother, Melissa Cistaro [this memoir was moving, poignant, and so well done—I really loved it]
Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal (audiobook / fiction)
Doll Palace, Sara Lippmann (short stories)
How to Walk, Thich Nhat Hanh (meditation based self-help)
Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf (fiction)
The Same Sky, Amanda Eyre Ward (fiction)
What Comes Next and How to Like It, Abigail Thomas (memoir)
In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, George Prochnik (nonfiction) [I skimmed this one]
The State We’re In: Maine Stories, Ann Beattie (short stories)
Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World, Linda Hirshman [currently reading]
ESSAYS / ARTICLES
Today is my debut appearance at The Mid—read why I’ll always prefer paper cards over texts and email.
Slate piece about the incredibly amazing discovery of Homo naledi and how they buried their dead
Slate piece about proliferation of first person essays
The Guardian’s response to the Slate piece about first person essays
Looking for new short story writers to read? Here are five mentioned by Lit Reactor
A compelling piece from New Republic about women writers who drink
Atlantic piece about being an attorney and a parent (a lot of this hit close to home for me personally)
The New Yorker’s listing of the National Book Awards longlist in fiction (I liked that a nod was given to the short story collections on the list)
Elite Daily gives our generation ten reasons to unplug and embrace solitude
This Atlantic headline had me at “Anti-Disneyland” and methinks a 2018 trip to Japan will be in order.
What book(s) did you read in September? Are any of them a “must read”?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
The other day I shared an Instagram shot of some literary journals I had picked up that day. In my caption, I suggested that folks support lit mags in some capacity, whether it be buying a single copy or subscribing for a year, or even just borrowing them from the library.
I got to thinking about why I am such a huge fan of many of them, both as a writer and a reader (my favorites are listed below, though it’s certainly not a complete list). In all honesty, until about maybe eight years ago, I didn’t realize the wide, WIDE range of literary magazines out there beyond the biggies like Ploughshares or The Paris Review. But now that I am actively submitting short stories and essays to various lit mags (writer me) and no longer always have the time or attention span for books in some circumstances (reader me), I’ve discovered there are many reasons to love lit mags. Allow me to share them with you, and maybe even convince you to go snag one for yourself sometime this summer.
♦ If you are a writer and want to end up in a lit mag someday, you need to read a few. It’s a no brainer, but you should read a few issues of the journal(s) where you’d like to be published to get an idea of the caliber/style/content, and see if your writing is a good fit. But read others too. You will be both inspired by and aspire to be included among the truly great writing contained therein. Since I’ve made the recent decision to focus almost all of my writing efforts to submit to print publishers rather than online forums, this has been a crucial part of the process for me.
♦ Many of them have mixed content. I love the fact that most (not all) have an assortment of essays, creative nonfiction, interviews, poetry, short stories/prose, and/or book reviews. It allows for skipping around (or past) things to suit your interest in that moment.
♦ You will come across new styles/content that you might not have been willing to commit to in long form like a novel or an anthology, but are willing to dabble in for a moment here without much investment of time or money.
♦ Lit mags make a good palate cleanser between reading books or writing your own content. Sometimes I want to read things that most other folks haven’t read widely, mainly because I don’t often like being biased by popular and strong praise for something that everyone seems to be reading. While I always welcome suggestions for brilliant books, the other side of that coin (especially if you move in writerly/readerly circles online like I do) is that I often feel like I don’t want to read something because it’s already been talked about to death before I’ve gotten to it, sometimes ruining the experience for me when I finally do sit down and read it. By reading lit mags, I have fewer skewed expectations yet I know that it is writing that has been vetted by astute editors.
♦ The price is justifiable. You are not only supporting a lit mag and its writers (though I know that not all of them pay writers with money—that’s a topic for another day), but the reading experience is often quite on par with a short novel timewise. I can buy a newsstand magazine for about $4-5 and finish it in an under hour, but lit mags usually take longer to savor and get through which (I think) aptly correlates to the slightly higher pricing. In other words, it’s worth it.
♦ You will definitely find new or “new to you” voices and be intrigued by what else they’ve written (that happened with me and reading something by Sara Lippmann in Heavy Feather Review), especially if they are not big names (yet).
♦ You will also occasionally find nuggets from writers you already love, whether it be an interview of them or an essay that they’ve written that you didn’t know about (like when I read something by Roxane Gay in Tin House).
♦ Many of the writers are on Twitter, and some of them are fascinating to follow.
♦ It’s on paper. I love the tactile experience of paper books and magazines. Lit mags are often like a revved up version of those media because the paper quality and size is usually quite good. It makes it feel like you are reading something special (because you are!).
♦ Many issues have a theme, and so discovering how various writers (and the editors selecting the work for that issue) thought about that theme can be really interesting, especially if you are a writer trying to put down your own words in a new light or with a different slant.
♦ Lean and portable, they are a good alternative to your regular beach or waiting room reading.
♦ Many English language lit mags available for purchase in U.S. bookstores are actually published in other countries. I personally think there is a lot of good stuff coming out of Canada and the U.K., but I know that I still have a lot more to explore from other places.
♦ The artwork adds a wonderful element to the reading experience. There are some really intriguing illustrations, collages, paintings, photographs, etc. that are featured in these lit mags, and are often things that you might not see anywhere else (and certainly not locally to where you live).
♦ Lit mags look interesting on your coffee table or can be easily passed along to friends (though I save many of mine).
♦ It is short story nirvana. And if you write short stories, you really start to appreciate how concise and sharp the writing must be to come in at under 1,000-5,000 words. I am learning so much, particularly with dialogue and pacing.
♦ The voices are fresh, and the stories are too. I like that the editors of these lit mags sometimes take risks that perhaps book publishers would not.
Some recent favorite literary journals (some of these probably qualify more as magazines) include Glimmer Train, One Story, Brick, Tin House, Orion, Popshot Magazine, Taproot, Heavy Feather Review (I purchased a volume of this for my iPad, which I loved), Womankind (this is new, but I love it so far), and Massachusetts Review. I also occasionally read a few others online as well, so even if a paper lit mag is not your thing (I actually just switched to an electronic subscription of Orion), I suggest poking around online. Many of the lit mags have an online presence (either exclusively or in addition to print), and sometimes their content is free (like a few of the stories in one volume) or can be purchased in single issues rather than subscribing for a full year.
Do you read literary journals? Which ones do you like best? Are you reading more as a reader or a writer?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
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