A quick rundown of the books I read (or am currently reading) during this month, and also just a few of the online articles that intrigued me in some fashion.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey (memoir). I had wanted to read this one a few years back and it’s lingered on my TBR list for some time. It’s a lovely short book about the author’s ability to cope with a debilitating chronic illness that forces complete bed rest for a lengthy amount of time. She is able to cope better during the ordeal all because of a tiny wild snail that lives in a potted plant (and eventually terrarium) next to her bed. Note: it does get a bit deep into the science of snails (which I personally liked). To me, the ending felt like it came up too quickly or was rushed at the “end” of the author’s story, but overall I really liked this book.
Blackass, A. Igoni Barrett (novel). I’d been seeing this book all over the place in various social media feeds, reviews, etc. and so I was intrigued. The simplistic version of the story: a black man living in Nigeria wakes up one morning to find that his skin has turned white, and it creates a new kind of lens for seeing life around him, including the inequities that existed but of which he was previously unaware. The dialogue/dialect were really well done, as was the creation of various scenes in Lagos, the Nigerian city where the story primarily takes place. Great book with a bit of satire, and I’m still thinking about its themes.
At Large and At Small, Anne Fadiman (essays). I became a fan of hers when I read Ex Libris (which I highly recommend if you are a book lover/buyer/collector!) and this book is equally stunning with its prose and the wide ranging topics she covers. I might need to binge read more of her work soon, that’s how much I like her work. As an essay writer myself, I also find her to be very inspiring and she makes me want to up my game.
[currently reading] The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America, Ann Neumann (part memoir/part research-essays). I am reading this for two reasons. First, I’m working on a collection of short stories where the central theme is all the various ways death affects those left in its wake, and I wanted a nonfiction source of inspiration/focus. Second, it dovetails so nicely into another recent read of mine, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Neumann’s prose is exquisite and she is a compassionate storyteller. I am about halfway through this one now.
[currently reading] What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi (short stories). What a treat it was to see Oyeyemi in person at an author reading of this book a few weeks ago. She is completely lovely as a person, and she is a stellar, creative storyteller too. I’m halfway through this one as well. It is a series of nine stories where a central theme is keys, all told with a fairy tale like approach. This book has received a tremendous amount of great press and I can see why.
I only had to read the title of this Atlantic piece to know I’d completely understand and relate: Why I Like to Instagram the Sky
This AGNI piece also lured me in because of the title: Why I Write Essays
I imagine many of you already saw this Katrina Kenison essay about solitude on On Being, but in case you didn’t…
Remember two weeks ago when I wrote my Writerly Bits: What I’ve Learned in 5 Years post (a popular one, surprisingly!), and I talked about whether I aim for print or online publication? Here’s another great take on that topic from The Review Review.
Solitude is a topic I think about quite often, as is one day living in Vermont. And so I was ecstatic when I read this essay and discovered that there is a new relevant memoir out there (The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude, by Howard Axelrod), which I will be adding to my TBR-PDQ shortlist.
What have you read this month that I should too?
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz
A quick rundown of the books I read during this (too short) month, and also just a few of the online articles that intrigued me in some fashion (plus a small dose of self-promo).
Little Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living, by Jason Gay (humorous essays/memoir). Holy moly was this book funny. Seriously—LOL funny. If you are in the same life spot as me (40s, children, married, likes references to the 80s/90s, and/or dealing with the usual life “stuff”) then it will appeal to you. I don’t read a lot of humor writing but this book is making me rethink why. (Gay is currently a sports writer for WSJ and very funny there too.)
Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman (YA novel). This is an incredible book. Superbly written, compelling story. It’s about a teenage boy dealing with mental illness. The chapters alternate between reality and his inner “reality” where his mind tricks him. The author’s son actually has a mental illness and you can tell by the touching, profound way he dives into this story what that experience must be like for not only the person living with it, but their family too. Some of it reminded me of Girl, Interrupted but I don’t want to give any spoilers. My heart ached the entire time I read it, but there was hope too. I am positive this will be a top five read for me in 2016.
The Invaders, by Karolina Waclawiak (novel). A fun, quick read. Steamy, gossipy, juicy stuff about a small slice of middle aged life in a well to do beach community. Now I wish I had saved it for this summer for a beach read. It’s that kind of book.
The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie (novel). This book is certainly quirky, especially the protagonist Veblen. That’s what drew me in to the story very quickly. If you like stories about dysfunctional families (and what happens when two engaged people have to bring theirs together upon marriage), this is for you. I will say I did enjoy the first half more than the second, but it held my interest nonetheless; I’m a sucker for wanting to know how things turn out. You will also never look at squirrels the same way again.
ARTICLES (some of these I’ve already tweeted, but not everyone is on Twitter, so…)
Speaking of mental health, is this not a most excellent idea? First aid classes to assist those with mental illness, like what to do when a panic attack hits (from The Atlantic).
When law and literature collide…a great piece from Lit Hub about how “literary” some judges are/were. (I clerked for a judge and I do recall discussions when working on decisions with him that flexed this muscle from time to time. It was quite fun.)
I’ve long been interested in the night sky and the effects of light pollution on our lives and ecosystems (in fact, my law review article in law school was about regulating light pollution). If that’s your thing too, check out this long read from Hazlitt.
Don’t these books about the impact of technology on our lives look good? I need to read one or two of them (from The New York Review of Books).
This topic has been on my mind very much lately, especially this past year as I work fervently on a short story collection: the relative lack of working-class / lower-class / underclass writing that is out there. This piece from Electric Literature touches on it. I’m still pondering and want to read more about this very notion.
Another topic that’s close to my heart. It’s one thing to not read the comments, but what about not offering that as an option to begin with? I feel like we too often see the lowest of humanity in that dark place. Loved this piece from Cognoscenti. Tell me what you think about it, please!
If you care about diversity in books and publishing, you need to read this piece from Brooklyn Magazine. Seriously. Read it.
(self-promo) I was happy to have a piece in this year’s 28 Days of Play blog series hosted by YouPlus2 Parenting. Here’s the link if you missed it. I also have a piece soon forthcoming with The Manifest-Station and will update with a link here once it’s live.
If you’re reading something great, let me know in the comments!
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz
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
If you ask me when you last made me catch my breath, I will tell you this.
Last night I more or less forced you to let me read aloud to you. You’ve been a very determined self-reader these past several months, and regrettably it means you want Dad and me to read less and less to you. We’ve given you wide berth to have time to read to yourself, hoping that we can slowly work our voices back into your bedtime routine soon enough. But for now, we allow you the pure joy of reading alone. For me, it is a bittersweet fork in the road to your independence.
But yesterday we were having . . . a day. I knew you needed to just be still and listen to a story. To snuggle down. To settle in.
I needed it too. The past several days have been heavy on my heart.
So I picked up Flora & Ulysses (Kate DiCamillo), a book I’ve long wanted to read to you. I read a few chapters and then it was time for bed. I kissed you goodnight. With me still hovering over your sweet face in the soft glow of your night light, we both agreed that we were looking forward to reading more of it tomorrow. I walked out and went to my room where I usually read or fold laundry until you are asleep.
A few minutes passed. I heard you get out of bed, somewhat unusual for you anymore. You padded to my doorway and delivered an epiphany about the squirrel in the book. You understood something about a character that totally flew past me, a plot line I hadn’t even seen coming. And it was brilliant. It was the distillation of so much I’ve watched you absorb over the course of your young years. It reaffirmed that you are paying attention to all that is wonderful in life.
You beamed as you turned back toward your room.
And that was when I couldn’t catch my breath.
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
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