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
March was a weird month for me when it came to reading. I was all over the place—either in the middle of lots of things or picking things up for a quick skim—meaning that I only finished two books during the month. A nasty cold worked its way through the house too, and I didn’t feel like reading for about ten straight days when my eyes hurt from the sinus pressure. This had the serendipitous effect of making me fall in love with Parks and Recreation and The Office (BBC version) via Netflix.
Here are the two books I did complete, and my quick takes:
Yes Please by Amy Poehler – I definitely liked it very much, particularly the parts about being a mother and growing up in Burlington. I certainly giggled in a few places (though admittedly not as much as with Tina Fey’s book) and I liked her candor with what she was willing to share. That said, I’d love to see her write another book in another 5-10 years. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I felt like she was either holding back, or distracted, or sometimes coming from a place of sadness while writing it. I want to see what she has to say in a few more years. (Not surprisingly, this book was the catalyst for my Parks and Recreation binge; I was not into the series during its original run, but will now watch more of these when I need a chuckle.)
Sweetland by Michael Crummey – What a great story. Set in the town of Sweetland (an island off of Newfoundland), it follows the difficult decision that the main character, Moses Sweetland, must make in the wake of the government offering the island’s residents a financial package to pick up and leave their homes and the island for good. Moses is eventually the last holdout, and does not want to leave his home or this special coastal place that has contained almost the entire the universe of his life. I really got a sense of the hardscrabble coastal imagery. The characters are keenly developed and even though they were not always likable, I loved them all. It’s the second book I’ve read in recent months where it focuses on a difficult decision that must be undertaken by an older man (the other book, which I adored and caused the ugly cry, was A Man Called Ove, by Fredrick Backman). I’m not sure whether that means anything profound, but it’s a POV I’m growing to love.
The poetry I poked in and out of included the selected works of Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Sharon Olds, and Adrienne Rich. I needed a “reset” mentally, and poetry seems to work wonders that way.
I also borrowed a few poetry collections. I adored Ten Poems to Change Your Life, by Roger Housden (I’ll be ordering a copy of this to keep—poets included Mary Oliver, Rumi, Pablo Neruda, and Galway Kinnell) and Light-Gathering Poems, edited by Liz Rosenberg (might order this too). From the children’s section, I snagged The Night of the Whippoorwill, selected by Nancy Larrick, illustrated by David Ray (featuring all night-themed poems that are lovely for children and adults).
Near the end of March, I started (and am still reading) several other books that I won’t list here now (mostly writing craft books), but I will say that I am really enjoying many of the stories in Neil Gaiman’s latest, Trigger Warning.
What did you read in March? Tell me below or link to your own blog post if you have one.
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
Even though February was a short month, and despite all the snow we shoveled within those four weeks, I somehow managed to read a few books. Here’s my quick rundown:
Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio (essays) — I have been really enjoying essays over the past year or so, and this collection did not disappoint. The writing—the vocabulary, even—is quite remarkable. Indeed, it is the book that prompted me to purchase a new thesaurus. Some of the essays are dark and uncomfortable, but D’Ambrosio offers so much depth, nuance, and keen observation that you find yourself immersed in places that you likely would never find yourself, like a disturbing haunted house or thinking about Mary Kay Letourneau. They were all much like living the experiences first hand which, to me, is the mark of a really great writer. The only one I did not care for was Salinger and Sobs, but that was solely because I barely remember what Catcher in the Rye was about and so I felt a little lost when he used the book in the context of describing his brothers’ deaths. I will certainly re-read this collection again at some point, even if just to be awed by the eloquent prose.
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande (nonfiction) — I already reviewed this important and well-written book on the blog, and you can read it here.
Ticket to Childhood, Nguyen Nhat Anh (fiction/translation from Vietnamese) — I have to be honest, I found this story to fall a bit short of what I was hoping for based on the jacket description (“a sly and lovely story about what we lose when we grow up”). Maybe I missed something (totally possible) but it felt a tad disjointed. There were certainly a few very profound passages, but the story as a whole just didn’t do it for me (which, now thinking back, has happened for me on a number of translated stories).
Almost Famous Women, Megan Mayhew Bergman (short stories/historical fiction) — In addition to essays, I am favoring short story collections these days. I really liked the variety of short stories about largely unknown women in the past. Some of the women were not likable and surprisingly that’s what I loved when coming across those kinds of characters in this book. My favorite story in the collection was The Autobiography of Allegra Byron; the emotional turmoil endured by Allegra’s caretaker, a woman who’d lost her own daughter to typhus, really came across the page, as did life in the abbey where the little girl was sent to live. I will defer a more thorough review to this one done by NPR, which is what first compelled me to buy the book.
The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart (nonfiction) — If you are interested in the history of various alcoholic spirits (gin, wine, tequila, beer, elderflower liqueur, etc.) and love plant life/gardening, this is a great book. It covers a wide range of spirits (many I’d never heard of) and how plant life is responsible for each of them. I purchased it for my iPad when BookBub offered it on sale a few months ago. Since I don’t read a whole lot on my iPad, I’ve been chipping away at this one here and there and finally finished it (I could never seem to read it all in one go). I think this would be great to have on a bookshelf devoted to gardening or food/drink rather than on an iPad, and would make a great gift book too.
The Five Moral Pieces, Umberto Eco (essays) — This line on the back of the book is why I picked it up for a read: “What does it mean to be moral or ethical when one doesn’t believe in God?” The back cover also declares that the underlying subject of the five essays is “the ethics involved with inhabiting this diverse and extraordinary world.” Hmmm. Honestly? I read one of the five essays, and skimmed (super fast) the other four. I enjoyed the one I read (When the Other Appears on the Scene) because it mulled over the question above and gave me much to ponder and note in the margin. The other four were just of no interest to me (that became apparent about four or five paragraphs in).
What I’m currently reading:
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris (part memoir/part exploration of the scientific underpinnings of spirituality, according to the jacket)
Sweetland, Michael Crummey (novel)
What did you read this month? Anything you recommend?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
When I think about my parents reading books when I was young, I seem to recall my father with a book in his hands more so than my mother. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening on her end, I just have more vivid memories of him reading books versus the magazines I remember her reading.
I don’t remember a bookshelf in the house, but I’m sure a few were stacked here and there. I remember paperbacks in their bedroom and in the family room, though not always certain who was actually reading a particular one. Robin Cook novels especially come to mind, with their vividly colored (or morbid) covers. The more graphic portions of Looking for Mr. Goodbar were the source of much tween curiosity when I happened to stumble upon that book one time. I don’t recall going to any bookstores, either for my parents or for my brother and me, though we must have because we certainly had our own books around the house.
We did, however, frequent the local library a lot, especially in upstate New York when we lived there. I was an early reader and craved books, but more than that, I think we went often because it was something for my mother (a stay-at-home mom most of my childhood) to do with us.
I remember two children’s books in particular so very well. They were, I dare say, the catalysts that likely solidified my love for reading and books. The first, I took out from the Kingston Public Library—and, I’m ashamed to admit, is still with us to this day, unearthed long ago during packing for a move. It was a lovely but sad story that moved me very deeply: Stories From A Snowy Meadow, written by Carla Stevens and illustrated by Eve Rice. I think it’s out of print now, sadly. It was the first book that ever made me cry. That a story can move a child like that, and still be prominent in the mind of the 40 year old version of the same person, is nothing short of extraordinary to me.
The second book that I remember is more for the conditions I read it under—sweltering hot summer spent mostly in my parents’ bedroom, the only room with air conditioning—as well as the immediacy with which it sucked me in: Konrad: The Factory Made Boy, written by Christine Nostlinger. I didn’t know this at the time, but (thank you, Internet) it was initially a German book translated into English. Sadly, it too seems to be out of print (both in its first 1976 version “Konrad”, and in the later 1999 “Conrad” version), and since I did return this one to the West Hurley Library, I don’t have a copy to read to M. But, that story. Man, I remember just being so consumed by what was essentially my first unputdownable book. Exhilarating and memorable to say the least.
I think the primary thing I am most grateful for from my parents is their teaching me how to read (and by age 4 at that) and giving me the love of books. It is probably the singular thing I am most eager to impress upon my own daughter, above all else. It doesn’t matter what life path you take. If you learn to read and love books, you can go anywhere.
When I think of the similarities and differences between books in my childhood home and what M observes around here, I tick off quite a few differences. First, the sheer number of books in this house is far greater than what was around growing up. Any horizontal surface that has bookshelf potential has become one, and baskets do double duty in more than one room for the overflow. Even M’s own collection is bursting at the seams of her built-in book shelves in her room. I am constantly conjuring up plans for my own set of built-ins in the living room (and it’s gonna happen!). This is all because I have somewhat of a problem with buying books. I can’t stop. My “to-read” and “am reading” pile contains, no joke, 27 books right now, and that doesn’t even count the four I just brought home from the library the other day.
Here’s just what’s in my bedroom at the moment:
Another big difference is that we seem to buy a lot more books than I did growing up. I would much rather spend money on books than toys, and that’s largely what we’ve done for the past 6+ years; most of her toys, save for a few at her birthday and Christmas, are from family and friends. Instead, “treats” from us throughout the year are books. We are fortunate to be able to do this, and I do it because I know that many are going downhill to cousins and such in the coming years. But I also want to build a small collection of “keepsake” books for M to hold on to for as long as she wants, and so there are plenty that are given special storage status. That’s something that I wish I had from my childhood. Whatever books I did own are long gone.
Lately though, we have bought fewer and increased our time at the library because she likes to read the longer books just once and then move on to something else. Obviously, that gets expensive if you’re buying, and so we go at least once a week and take out a big pile of books. She’s usually read all of the picture books and easy readers before we get dinner on the table, and leaves the longer chapter books for us to read to her at night. Here’s this week’s haul:
Also, M has a much greater chance of seeing me reading around the house rather than her dad. This is the opposite of what I remember for myself. My husband does read, but it’s primarily on the T to work when he’s out of sight (and occasionally on vacation). I, on the other hand, will usually grab a book or magazine in any free moments when she’s around doing something else. I’m also the one, through default of being with her more, that tends to read to her during the day and take her to the library. We both read to her at night before bed though. I know that my parents obviously must have read to me a lot when I was younger, but I cannot recall specific rituals about it. For M, since the time she was about a month or two old, both of us take turns reading to her before bed literally every single night (unless one of us is out for a meeting or traveling). It is sacred to her and us. I really hope she remembers that time as much as I will when she’s older.
The last difference that I have noticed is when I am on an iPad to read. Obviously that was not an option for my parents. And, quite frankly, I’m not entirely excited about it now. I don’t read all of my books on the iPad (maybe only 30-40%, if that), but the bottom line is that it looks identical to the times when I am using it for Twitter or Internet research. This bothers me a bit. There is something to be said for seeing your parents, who are your first role models, holding an actual book. This is where I struggle with the advent of technology that is clearly not going away. Maybe she will read all of her books as an adult (or even parent perhaps) on a device. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know but it’s a thing, for sure, and I’m not clear about its implications in the context of teaching and modeling a love for books and reading to children. It’s why I’ve made a more conscious effort lately for these early years to try and limit my iPad reading (and use) to when she’s not around. We also have not entered device reading territory for her yet, though I imagine those days will cease at some point.
But the one thing that is the same is the love for books. She has it already, especially now that she’s discovered chapter books that come in a series. She gets quite attached to the characters. When she was a little younger, she got really attached to certain authors, like Kevin Henkes and Cynthia Rylant. I like that. Currently she is zipping through the Ivy+Bean series, and we’ve started a few new series this week. It reminds me of when I loved virtually everything that Judy Blume wrote, the only author I can specifically recall reading as a child (somehow the Beverly Cleary books did not enter my radar screen).
She knows already that books can take you places and help you make sense of the world, in many cases when you are not able to do that entirely yourself. They make great travel companions and excuses to stay in. They keep you company when your bucket of friends is empty. They become social currency that allow us to engage with other like minded bibliophiles. I hope this is what she takes away from books, just like I did.
What about you? Did you see a lot of books and reading when you were growing up? Do you recall a childhood favorite? How do you incorporate books into your daily life with your own children now? Do you, or they, read on a device, and how’s that going?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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