I love reading books, and I learned at least in time for graduate school to love writing about the books I read. My intention, these last two years or so, was to keep blogging about the books I read, as I had done sporadically for a while, then more methodically here, here, and here.
Those posts were fun to write, and they were well received, and the routine was simple enough. When I finished a book, I stacked it in a particular place until I had written about it here. Well, the stack has grow too large. I haven’t taken time to write about the books since September 2022, and I was playing catch-up then.
So today we catch up. I’ll list some books in passing but stop to chat about most, knowing full well I won’t do justice to any of them. Sixteen are fiction and grouped accordingly. Seventeen are nonfiction and separated into books about writing and others.
Vasily Grossman, Stalingrad (1952)
Vasily Grossman was a Ukrainian Jew and one of the leading war correspondents of World War II, in addition to writing short and long fiction. His early eyewitness accounts of Nazi concentration camps and his later work collecting and reporting Jewish stories of persecution at the hands of both tyrannical powers on the Eastern front are important historical sources. His mother was slaughtered by the Nazis at Berdichev.
Stalingrad, also published as For a Just Cause, is a fictional account of a pivotal campaign of the war. Stalingrad was a major Soviet/Russian city; before and after the Soviet period it is called Volgograd. The story ranges across Russia and Europe, focusing on a few families. It ends before the Battle of Stalingrad ends; Grossman’s masterpiece, Life and Fate, picks up where Stalingrad ends.
Life and Fate is my favorite novel of the 20th century, but Stalingrad is one of the century’s great novels too. Together they bear comparison with Tolstoy’s vast novel of Napoleon’s war with Russia, War and Peace. Stalingrad was written and began to be published serially under Stalin, and for all its artistry and historical merit, it shows some signs of its period, notably a need to say the right things and avoid saying the wrong things (even though the precise definition of the right and wrong things changed often and unpredictably).
I read Life and Fate in graduate school (in Russian Literature, mind you), and I’m reading it again. I hadn’t read Stalingrad before. Both are about war and totalitarianism and their effects on people — dark subjects, to be sure. But there is a current of hope beneath the horror, as humanity itself, nature itself fights for life and freedom.
Stalingrad is a thick tome, nearly 1,000 pages in translation. I wouldn’t have missed it. Two things Grossman wrote elsewhere give a sense of novel:
“Under Hitler and Stalin individual lives have been discounted; people are divided into categories — to be kept and to be destroyed. Yet totalitarian violence proved powerless to suppress the kernel of humanity in one’s heart.”
And (in an article, “The Hell of Treblinka”): “It is the writer’s duty to tell the terrible truth, and it is a reader’s civic duty to learn this truth. To turn away, to close one’s eyes and walk past is to insult the memory of those who have perished. . . . It is not enough to speak about Germany’s responsibility for what has happened. Today we need to speak about the responsibility of every nation in the world.”
The responsibility to “prevent Nazism from ever rising again,” he said, lies with all humanity — a thought which seems never to have stopped being relevant, and it probably never will.
Mark Haber, Saint Sebastian’s Abyss (2022)
This is a quirky, witty, brief, rather poetic novel about two art critics who made their names studying a particular painting, were best friends, became enemies — and now one of them is on his deathbed and has summoned the other in a “relatively short e-mail” which prints out to nine pages. As a reader I took a few pages, but only a few, to appreciate that some repetitions not only were intentional (as opposed to careless editing), but also part of the humor of the book and part of the web it weaves. Read with a mind both open and prepared to be bent a little, then bent again and again before the wrenching ending is complete.
Maybe you need to have spent time in the academic world or be an artist to enjoy it. But I wouldn’t know. I did my time in the academic world, and I’m fond of art.
Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev (1972)
I came late to Potok, which means I didn’t read this book in high school, as a lot of readers do, apparently. I wonder if I would have loved it then.
I know back cover blurbs are just marketing, but the Wall Street Journal nailed it: “profound in its vision of humanity, of religion, and of art.”
I am actively studying how fiction writers write lives of faith in a way that the world can read — because I’m trying to write that way too. I am not Potok, and my characters are not Hasidic Jews (at least so far). But I can and do admire a gifted writer who can tell the story of a Jewish artist living his life both within and in defiance of his Judaism, and yet the story speaks to gentile readers too.
I now have a stack of Potok to read: three more novels, one piece of nonfiction. Stay tuned.
Amanda Sellet, By the Book: A Novel of Prose and Cons (2020)
I read this recent, highly-recommended young adult romance because I heard I would like the voice (a topic of practical study in my attempts to write fiction). And, now that I think about it, reading a sample confirmed that report.
I did enjoy the voice throughout, as well as the premise. A bookish teen knows more of romance from great works of literature than from life. Happily, her knowledge proves valuable but insufficient — and what could possibly go wrong? (It does.)
If you know literature — and I guess it would help to love it — it’s a fun read.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)
This is another book I never read in high school. I read it decades later on a couple of airplanes, and I loved it. The omnicient, moralizing narrator and the long paragraphs are not modern, but that isn’t a problem for me, and I hope it isn’t for many readers. Moreover, some of the moralizing is juicy fodder for epigraphs, which I love.
Two brief snippets:[Speaking of Mr. Dimmesdale] “Trusting no man as his friend, he could not recognize his enemy when the latter actually appeared.” (In the chapter “The Leech and His Patient.”)
And who that is thoughtful doesn’t still long for such a time as this . . .
“[Hester] assured them, too, of her firm belief that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.” (the next-to-last paragraph of the novel).
I recommend it — to adult readers, not just adolescent students.
William Trevor, After Rain (1996)
You’d probably have to pay attention to the genre to know that William Trevor, the Irish novelist and playwright, is a celebrated master of the short story too. This little volume, which I picked up at The King’s English in Salt Lake City, is a collection of a dozen of his short stories. If contemporary, realistic short stories are your thing (I both read them and write them), you couldn’t do much better.
I enjoyed these finely crafted little tales, including the one which begins with two young boys half-filling their father’s golf bag with concrete from an adjacent construction project while the workers are away at lunch. Naturally, it’s not about concrete.
Of late I’ve been teaching a bit on writing short fiction, and I always emphasize the need to read short fiction if you’re trying to write it. For best results, read it at least twice, first as a reader, to enjoy it; then as a writer, to study it. I haven’t given these tales a second reading yet, but I expect to enjoy them again and thoroughly when I do.
Jennifer M. Franks, Crown City by the Sea (2018)
This novel is historical fiction, weaving fictional characters with historical figures and telling the story of the building and early years of the iconic Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, California (an island off San Diego). It’s not great literature, but I enjoyed it, including its account of the settling of the island itself by people working on the project.
“The Del,” as some of us call it, was featured in the classic comedy film Some Like It Hot (starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, among others; released in 1959). I stayed there for several days in 1983 on someone else’s dime, and my family makes a point to visit its shops and gorgeous beach when we’re in San Diego. When we visit the Del, I make a point to visit nearby Coronado Bay Books, an excellent bookshop, which is where I bought this volume.
If you’re on the island, check out Second Hand Prose too, the Friends of the Coronado Public Library’s bookshop at the library (but with a separate entrance).
Kaki Olsen and Scott Ashby, Miracle on Deck 34 and other Yuletide Tales (2021)
This is a collection of short stories by two authors (one author per story) with a premise I couldn’t resist, especially when I was conversing with one of the authors about it in person at an indie authors event at the American Fork [Utah] Library: Christmas meets speculative fiction (e.g. sci fi and fantasy). The experience of reading the stories is uneven, but that’s actually true of any collection of short fiction. With a confession of self-interest I declare, that’s the beauty of it. A collection of different stories you can explore in a single sitting each. Some you’ll love, you can always hope, but some you probably won’t.
Instead of excerpts, here are some of the stories’ titles:
- Silent Night, Holey Night (<- not a typo)
- Miracle on Deck 34 (but you already got that one, right?)
- Hark, Harold the Angel Sings
- Once on Royal David’s Planet
- Santa Claus Is Coming to Titan
- O Tannin Bomb
- I Heard the Engines on Christmas Day
- We Three Little Green Kings
- Sleep in Kryosleep Peace
The book design isn’t top-tier, and I’d have wanted a skosh more editing, but I enjoyed the reading. Part of that was the delightful adventure of wondering, then seeing, how bizarre a Christmas story could get.
Besides — and I again say this in self-interest — the world needs more Christmas stories anyway.
Kathy Cooperman, The Very Principled Maggie Mayfield (2018)
I “read” this novel on audio to study voice and characterization, but it was also enjoyable enough that I mention it here. It’s a smart, funny, not-squeaky-clean rom com about a high school principal with good intentions that go awry. As fiction often is, it’s also a commentary — in this case on education and technology, among other things.
Consult GoodReads about the genre of this tale, and you’ll see “women’s fiction,” “chick lit,” “humor,” and “romance.” Yeah, I’m a guy, and yeah, I read some of those things. I’m a big fan of Liane Moriarty, I recently reread Pride and Prejudice on audio, and a good share of my own audience as a writer is women.
And I’m not shy about admitting I enjoy some of the books I could truthfully claim to have read as research.
Scott Turow, Suspect (2022)
Scott Turow is by far my favorite writer of legal thrillers. I’ve read my share of Grisham too, but Turow’s offerings are deeper and more satisfying for me. In this case, a young, reckless private detective nicknamed Pinky gets caught up in a scandal involving the local police chief, three of whose male officers accuse her of trading sex for promotions. But there are larger matters too, which aren’t immediately evident.
It’s not squeaky clean; this is typical of Turow — and how could it be, given the plot? But if that doesn’t bother you, it’s a good read.
Various authors (including me), Lost and Found: Second Chance Romance Stories (2022)
When a story of mine is published in an anthology, I try to read the whole anthology. In some cases, I haven’t finished yet. In this case I have, so I’m listing it. It has my short story “There Might Be Another Way,” and fourteen others. (Mine is now also available in my 2023 collection The Dad Who Stayed and other stories. A little shameless self-promotion there.)
Other Fiction I’ve Read Recently
I’m posting this today, come heck or high winds — I can’t believe I just wrote “heck” — and it’s only part of my holiday home office cleaning project. (It’s the most fun.) So I’ll list some books without chatting about them. I could list about a dozen more, I’m sure, but they’re not in the teetering stack, and the day is half gone, and the work part of the new year commences tomorrow.
- Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry (an introvert bookseller; I enjoyed the movie too)
- Tammy L. Gray, My Hope Next Door (also research, a Christian romance)
- Jodi Picoult, Plain Truth (murder with a side of romance, in an Amish setting, part of my readings of fiction about people of faith)
- Mark Sullivan, Beneath a Scarlet Sky (a World War II adventure, set in Italy, based on a true story)
- Kelly Harms, The Overdue Life of Amy Byler (funny, intelligent, about a single mom; look up “momspringa”)
Nonfiction: Books About Other Things than Writing, Mostly
Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013)
I’d like to write a long essay on this book, and maybe I will someday, but I’ve learned that you shouldn’t hold your breath when I say such things.
If you read Zealot in a devotional mindset and are well versed in the scriptural Jesus, you’ll be frustrated or even angry. I marked my copy rather heavily, as I sometimes do, and some of my marginal notes are “not exactly,” “not true,” “simplistic,” “unimaginative,” “(eye roll),” “not the same,” “makes too much of wording,” “no,” “too easy,” “misread,” “B.S.,” ” and “unless he [Jesus] was who he said he was.” If you thumb through my copy, you’ll see me arguing with author on various points, and a lot of my marginal notes require too much context to list here.
That said, it’s an excellent read — because I read it to learn more of the times of Jesus of Nazareth, and it’s absolutely superb at that. I highly recommend it for that — and it’s good to read views of things we care about which differ from our own.
I bought this book at that book lovers’ Mecca, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon.
C. S. Lewis, The Reading Life (2019)
This thin volume is a collection of things C. S. Lewis wrote about reading and readings. Some excerpts are long, some short. Titles and topics include (among many others):
- Why Children’s Stories Are Not Just for Children
- The Case for Reading Old Books
- Why Movies Sometimes Ruin Books
- How to Murder Words
- The Achievements of J. R. R. Tolkien (a close friend of Lewis)
- Literary Snobs
- Jane Austen
- The Delight of Fairy Tales
Here are two good bits from near the beginning:
“Every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are.” (pp. 4-5)
On literature/fiction: “[In reading] we become these other selves. Not only or chiefly in order to see what they are like but in order to see what they see, to occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theatre, to use their spectacles and be made free of whatever insights, joys, terrors, wonders or merriment those spectacles reveal. Hence it is irrelevant whether the mood expressed in a poem was truly and historically the poet’s own or one that he also had imagined. What matters is his power to make us live it.” (pp. 6-7)
This little book makes a great gift too.
David McCullough, Truman (1993)
I listened to this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic as an audio book. It’s over 54 hours of audio, and it was worth every minute. Neither hagiography nor exposé, this sympathetic but candid biography deserves its accolades and its length. Some of my favorite sections involved Truman’s work on a congressional committee addressing fraud and waste among defense contractors during World War II and the detailed account of his meetings with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam in 1945, during the winding-up scenes of World War II.
I have known of others’ respect for Truman since my childhood, and I remember watching his funeral on television. Now I have for him some of the same fondness as I have for Ronald Reagan, and for some of the same reasons. I also have a clearer view of some pivotal years in American history.
I read this prior to a planned trip to Kansas City and Independence, Missouri — Truman country, not just Mormon country — but we had to postpone the trip. Happily, the book stands on its own.
Harold S. Kushner, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person (2012)
I read this prior to teaching Job in a Sunday school class. I enjoy Kushner anyway, and his take on the most literary book of the Old Testament was interesting and insightful. One of the book’s — and Rabbi Kushner’s — virtues is that it approaches the text seriously, even rigorously, not just using it as a jumping-off point for whatever the author wants to say.
But it’s not just scholarly. It’s relevant and even moving.
Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012)
Marilynne Robinson is known for her novels. I’ve read one, Home, and another, Gilead, is in my optimistically large collection of books to read. But as with Ann Patchett, I first met her through her essays. Her essays are more philosophical than Patchett’s, but she touches some of the same themes, including faith and modern American culture — and she dives deeply into politics.
The title of this volume pulled me in. The Preface hooked me quite firmly. The first essay, “Freedom of Thought,” which is mostly about religion, gave me more than enough impetus to carry me through the other essays — but I didn’t need it. They had energy enough of their own.
From the Preface:
“We now live in a political environment characterized by wolfishness and filled with blather. We have the passive pious, who feel they have proved their moral refinement in declaring the whole enterprise bankrupt, and we have the active pious, who agree with them, with the difference that they see some hope in a hastily arranged liquidation of cultural assets.” (p. x)
“What has been the basis of the enduring health that has so far made for the stability and dynamism of the country? It is always necessary to stipulate, though of course it should be assumed, that a statement like this one implies comparison with a human norm, not with Utopia. As societies go, we have enjoyed the kind of prosperity and advancement that is possible only where there is domestic peace.” (p. xii)
From “Freedom of Thought”:
“At a certain point I decided that everything I took from studying and reading anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural history, and so on did not square at all with my sense of things, and that the tendency of much of it was to posit or assume a human simplicity within a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty. I do not mean to suggest, and I underline this, that there was any sort of plot against religion, since religion in many instances abetted these tendencies and does still, not least by retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as condescension. Who among us wishes the songs we sing, the sermons we hear, were just a little dumber? People today — television — video games — diminished things. This is always the pretext. . . .
“We do not deal with one another as soul to soul, and the churches are as answerable for this as anyone.” (p. 5)
And: “If we are to consider the heavens, how much more are we to consider the magnificent energies of consciousness that make whomever we pass on the street a far grander marvel than our galaxy?” (p. 8)
And: “Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again.” (p. 18)
Deeper into the book, in “The Fate of Ideal: Moses,” don’t you want to see her make this case? — “The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor. Why do we not know this yet?” (p. 102)
“When Jesus describes Judgment, the famous separation of the sheep from the goats, he does not mention religious affiliation or sexual orientation or family values. He says, ‘I was hungry, and ye fed me not’ (Matthew 25:42). Whether he was a rabbi, a prophet, or the Second Person of the Trinity, the ethic he invokes comes straight from Moses.” (p. 124)
You must read these essays with an active mind, but if these excerpts engage you, you’ll enjoy them. I found myself wanting to argue far less than I did when reading On Freedom or Zealot (both mentioned in this post). I confess cheering here and there — not because her thoughts were a welcome echo in an echo chamber, but because her words expanded, integrated, and energized, not just expressed, my own thoughts.
Alexandra Popoff, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century (2019)
I read this splendid biography of my favorite 20th century writer as a prelude to reading Stalingrad (see above) and rereading Life and Fate. Beside its focus on Grossman himself, it is a grim picture of the times, not to be missed by anyone who wants to understand either what life was like for writers under Lenin, Stalin, and beyond or the Soviet side of the Holocaust.
If I were to make a list of the great freedom writers of literature — a list which would have to include Mark Twain but also Fyodor Dostoevsky, among others — I’d put Grossman on it with and above Solzhenitsyn, for what it’s worth.
This book is, as a back cover blurb by Michael Shelden says, “a harrowing tale of cruelty and courage.” I read it twice. I’ll probably read it again.
Maggie Nelson, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (2021)
“I had set out to write about cruelty, then found, to my surprise, freedom coming through the cracks, light and air into cruelty’s stuffy cell. . . . I started with ‘What Is Freedom?,’ by Hannah Arendt.”
Nelson’s task is to explore freedom in the context of our times. I saw in skimming the book, before I bought it at The King‘s English in Salt Lake City, that she was coming at it from devout leftist beliefs about such things as climate change, but I also saw some thoughts worth thinking. I was dismayed in the early pages that she invoked a tiresome trope that is all to familiar in recent years, that all good things, including justice, truth, freedom, and civilization itself, are about to end because of the presidency of the man someone she saw on social media called “God-Emperor Trump” — as if President Trump were the embodiment of evil, not just far less of a president than the nation needed (or needs), and as if truth, justice, freedom, and civilization itself were not under relentless attack from the Left too, these past two centuries or so.
But I’m glad I didn’t put it down forever in those early pages. I enjoy reading the thoughts of people with whom I disagree, on topics about which I care a great deal, and I enjoyed the four essays in this book. And her mind is broader than the modern secular catechism. In other words, her thoughts, I was pleased to discover, are not enslaved to the narrative-industrial complex. Here’s a morsel of proof (she quotes Jackie Wang): “When people identify with their victimization, we need to critically consider whether it is being used as a tactical maneuver to construct themselves as innocent and exert power without being questioned.” (p. 112)
These essays — four of them, so they’re long — are filled with big thoughts and plenty of big sentences and big words. But the writing itself, like her insights, has moments of simple clarity too. Here’s one, talking about addressing large problems and challenges with breadth, humanity, and historical awareness: “We owe ourselves and each other as much specificity and context as we can muster, as well as a dedication not to treat anyone as roadkill. Otherwise, our efforts are likely to backfire on the very people they’re meant to serve.” (p. 108)
Again, if you saw my copy of the book, you’d see me engaging the text, often arguing with it. I’m glad I read it. If thinking people on both sides — every side — of our political divides could take a deeply thoughtful look at their own sides, not just the opposition, we could talk about many things and even change some.
Be advised that there is candid talk of sex and drug use.
Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture (2008)
This moving, humane, and insightful bestseller begins with a “last lecture” which really was. Professor Pausch had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The book’s sections give the general flavor: “The Last Lecture,” “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” “Adventures . . . and Lessons Learned,” “Enabling the Dreams of Others,” “It’s About How to Live Your Life,” and (somewhat chilling in context) “Final Remarks.”
He created for his computer science students a “First Penguin” award for “glorious failure,” celebrating “out-of-the-box thinking and using imagination in a daring way. “The other students came to understand: ‘First Penguin’ winners were losers who were definitely going somewhere. The title of the award came from the notion that when penguins are about to jump into water that might contain predators, well, somebody’s got to be the first penguin. I originally called it ‘The Best Failure Award,’ but failure has so many negative connotations that students couldn’t get past the word itself.” (p. 149)
“Honesty is not only morally right, it’s also efficient. In a culture where everyone tells the truth, you can save a lot of time double-checking. When I taught at the University of Virginia, I loved the honor code. If a student was sick and needed a makeup exam, I didn’t need to create a new one. The student just ‘pledged’ that he hadn’t talked to anybody about the exam, and I gave him the old one.” (p. 163)
Nonfiction: Books About Writing
Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface (2016)
I’ve read a lot of books about writing. I keep very few of them ready at hand in my ongoing quest to be a better writer. This became one of those long before I had finished it. Its focus is on how to cause, through our writing, our readers to have the emotional experiences our characters are having. If you happen to be serious about writing fiction, I highly recommend it.
Susan Bell, The artful edit: On the practice of editing yourself (2007)
I both edit others’ fiction and write my own — and when my own sees an editor eventually, I want it already to be the best I can make it on my own. When I saw this book on the shelf (and read the first few pages) at Grassroots Books in Reno, Nevada — a magical place where a lot of the browsing happens outdoors — I took it home with me.
“There are three types of self-editors: (1) Arrogant and blind: You believe you are a master and that masters only commit very few and very minor erros. Your worst missteps remain hidden behind your conceited idea of yourself and your mistaken idea of what constitutes a master. (2) Panicked and too timid or too aggressive: You overestimate the problems of your text and lose heart before you begin. You edit too timidly (afraid to face what’s wrong) or too aggressively (convinced that everything is wrong). (3) Pragmatic and cool: You are possessed by the need to make your writing function. You consider yourself neither genius nor idiot. You edit like the French recommend exacting revenge: coldly.” (p. 45)
Obviously, the third of those is the objective. This book is not a quick read or a riveting page-turner, but I find it useful. (My use of the present tense there, “find,” instead of “found,” is praise indeed, given that I’ve already read it.)
Writing is hard work. If you’re not willing to believe that and get to the work anyway, there’s not much point in reading this book. If you are, there might be.
(Another book I’ll list here, Mary Pipher’s Writing to Change the World, quotes Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for others.”)
In fact, let’s go there now . . .
Mary Pipher, Writing to Change the World (2006)
I admit it: I write to change the world. How I’d like the world to be and what changes I think might lead there are topics for many, many other days.
Pipher writes for the writer who wants to change the world. Decide what you really care about, she says, and then find the writing you can do there. It may or may not be fiction.
It’s a good read. For me it was also insightful and inspiring.
A few morsels:
“I am not interested in weapons, whether words or guns. I want to be part of the rescue team. . . . The rescuers will be those people who help other people to think clearly, and to be honest and open-minded. They will be an antidote to those people who disconnect us. They will de-objectify, re-humanize, and make others more understandable and sympathetic.” (p. 5)
“As portrayed by the media, sex is casual, and it happens without discussion, protection, or the need for a relationship. Having sex involves about as much commitment as buying a sandwich. And violence is presented as the way to resolve the smallest of problems, and often as the first way and not the last. Worst of all, violence is divorced from its effects.” (p. 12)
“Positive changes come from decent people acting properly.” (p. 13)
“Any form of writing can change the world. Your goal is to find the form that allows you to use every one of your talents in the service of what you consider to be your most important goals. You want to search for what you alone can say and then how you can say it most effectively.” (p. 27)
Accordingly, besides treating such things as writing precisely, choosing point of view, using details, and finding your authentic voice as a writer, she writes of the possibilities in letters, speeches, poems, music, and personal essays, not just fiction. And here’s a bonus. She’s quotable, as you see, but she has also filled her books with brief quotes from others, and many of those are treasures.
Ann Patchett, What now? (2008)
This small volume is an expansion on a commencement address. Part of it’s about writing, part is not. Patchett is one of my favorite essayists and a renowned novelist. (I haven’t read any of her novels yet, but one or two are in my stack of books to read.) Personal and autobiographical, as her essays tend to be, this book did not disappoint — which, given my expectations, is saying something.
Two bits from near the end:
“I hadn’t planned on winding up as a waitress, but the truth is there was a lot about the job I liked even if I didn’t think I’d do it forever. I spent my days with good people who were hardworking and resilient. They took their tough times in stride and managed to dream big dreams in between the salads and desserts. I laughed an awful lot in those days, and I felt proud of the money I folded into my pocket at night. Just because things hadn’t gone the way I had planned didn’t necessarily mean they had gone wrong.” (p. 76)
“If you’re trying to find out what’s coming next, turn off everything you own that has an OFF switch and listen. Make up some plans and change them. Identify your heart’s truest desire and don’t change that for anything. Be proud of yourself and the work you’ve done. Be grateful to all the people who helped you do it. Write to them and let them know how you are. You are, every one of you, someone’s favorite unfolding story. We will all be anxious to see what happens next.” (p. 80, the conclusion of the speech)
And for the writers among us: “I came to understand that fiction writing is like duck hunting. You go to the right place at the right time with the right dog. You get into the water before dawn, wearing a little protective gear, then you stand behind some reeds and wait for the story to present itself. This is not to say you are passive. You choose the place and the day. You pick the gun and the dog. You have the desire to blow the duck apart for reasons that are entirely your own. But you have to be willing to accept not what you wanted to have happen, but what happens. You have to write the story you find in the circumstances you’ve created, because more often that not the ducks don’t show up. . . . By the time you get out of the marsh you will have written a novel so devoid of ducks it will shock you.” (p. 74)
One of the virtues of blogging is that getting personal works just fine, so here are some personal notes from me.
- That thing about writing to the people who’ve helped you — I’ve done that a few times, not often enough. It only happens rarely to any of them, and when they get that letter, it makes their day, their week, their month, and sometimes even their year. Do it.
- The main character of one of my short stories, “Orange Juice,” is a waitress with similar thoughts to those I quoted. I wrote that story before I read this book, for what it’s worth. It’s published in one of my collections now (Poor As I Am and other stories at Christmas), but for now, at least, it’s also available free online. If the link stops working before you click it — if I eventually take the story down — contact me and I’ll e-mail you a copy of the story.
- I’ve never been duck hunting. I know people who prefer it to writing — that is a great understatement — but for me it’s the reverse. In any case, I know well the feeling of starting to write something and discovering eventually that what you actually wrote isn’t what you intended at all.
George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (2021)
This is one of my favorite books ever about being a writer, and it does justice to some of that Russian literature I love and studied for several years too. The cover says, “In which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading, and life,” but this doesn’t do its author justice. It is a master class, to be sure — but the master behind it all is George Saunders, a gifted writer and a gifted reader too.
He focuses on short fiction in part because he writes short fiction, but also because it would be difficult to analyze even one, let alone eight, pieces of classic Russian fiction if he chose the longer ones. His readings are detailed and brilliant, and his insights into being a writer are too — and I found some of the latter quite comforting in my own insecurities.
“[The short story] is not a documentary or rigorous accounting of the passage of time or a fair-minded attempt to show life as it is really lived; it’s a radically shaped … little machine that thrills us with the extremity of its decisiveness.”
“A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals. We keep reading because we continue to feel respected by the writer. … The reader is out there, and she’s real. She’s interested in life and, by picking up our work, has given us the benefit of the doubt. All we have to do is engage her. To engage her, all we have to do is value her.”
“To write a story that works, that moves the reader, is difficult, and most of us can’t do it. Even among those who have done it, it mostly can’t be done. And it can’t be done from a position of total control, of flawless mastery, of simply having an intention and then knowingly executing it. There’s intuition involved, and stretching – trying things that are at the limit of our abilities, that may cause mistakes. … The writer has to risk a crackling voice and surrender to his actual power, his doubts notwithstanding. …
“It’s hard to get any beauty at all into a story. If and when we do, it might not be the type of beauty we’ve always dreamed of making. But we have to take whatever beauty we can get, however we can get it.”[Analyzing Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” …] “That’s the kind of story I want to write, the kind that stops being writing and starts being life.But, Lord, it’s harder than it looks.”
“The difference between a sentence that is pleasing (that feels vivid and truthful and undeniable) and compels the reader to read the next, and one that displeases her and shoots her out of the story is – well, I find I can’t complete that sentence, not in any general way. And I don’t need to. To be a writer, I only need to read a specific sentence of mine, in its particular context, on a given day, pencil in hand, changing the sentence as it occurs to me to do so.
“Then do that again, over and over, until I’m pleased.”
(I don’t have page references handy at the moment, but if you want them, I’m happy to retrieve them.)
David Lodge, The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts (1992)
David Lodge is one of my favorite novelists. This volume is a collection of 50 short essays — columns, really — which began in publications such as the Independent and the Washington Post. Touching briefly on everything from weather to unreliable narrators, he sometimes delights and always instructs. Erudite and often technical, this small book will appeal to serious writers, I think, and the most serious among readers, perhaps.
One representative morsel. He has just quoted a passive from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which I thoroughly enjoyed reading a decade or two ago — the whole thick novel, not just the passage he just quoted).
“And so on, for several pages. It is magnificent, but it belongs to a more patient and leisurely culture than ours. Modern novelists usually prefer to let the facts about a character emerge gradually, diversified, or actually conveyed, by action and speech. In any case, all description in fiction is highly selective; its basic rhetorical technique is synecdoche, the part standing for the whole.” (p. 68)
On second thought, one more bit, which I encountered while (cough) closing the book after typing that last bit. (Yes, it appears 78 pages later. Closing a book can be a protacted thing.)
Writing of Samuel Butler’s Erewhom, which I have not read, and specifically the Erewhomians in it: “Its inhabitants have reached approximately the same stage of development as Victorian England, but their values and beliefs seem bizarre and perverse to the narrator. For example, they regard illness as a crime, requiring punishment and segregation from respectable people, and crime as an illness, deserving of commiseration from friends and relatives, and requiring expensive treatment by sympathetic practictioners called ‘straighteners.'” (p. 144)
A tad on the nose in the 2020s, perhaps? Sorry, not sorry. (I’m tempted to insert a broadly smiling emoji here, but I will forbear.)
John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (2018)
I taught college writing courses for several semesters in the Ivy League and elsewhere, and I hope to do so again someday, somewhere. A lot of Warner’s argument, like the research he cites, will likely interest only a writing teacher, and the book itself is far-ranging (across the topic), but here are some representative bits. Note the critique of much teaching of writing as stifled by artificial and unrealistic expectations and constraints, with an emphasis on compliance above freedom of thought:
“Students . . . make these errors because students are human. Students should learn to correct these errors because writing clearly and correctly is important, but being human isn’t a sign of catastrophic defect. We often judge students on writing they have not been given time to polish against standards against which we would never consider holding ourselves.” (p. 13)
“The writing-related tasks we frequently visit upon students would prove difficult even for highly-experienced writers. Writing on subjects with which we’re newly familiar, in forms that are foreign, and addressed to audiences that are either undefined or unknown (other than “for the teacher”) bears little resemblance to the way we write for the world.” (p. 27)
“Giving students time and space to think is a dangerous proposition when compliance is so valued. Thinking is both invisible and unknowable, and even ungovernable. We don’t know if Rodin’s thinker is contemplating the state of the human condition or wondering if the roast lamb he had for lunch tasted a little off. Rather than risk a wayward thought, schools have put a premium on attention to the point many students are even medicated so they may better perform this compliance.
“And make no mistake, it is a performance, primarily for the benefit of teachers and those who believe learning happens best in orderly spaces, a contention for which we have no compelling evidence. If your mind is attending to sitting up straight so as not to risk punishment from the teacher, how much of the lesson can you be absorbing?” (p. 53)
“If we are truly going to value writing, teaching writing must extend beyond English or Language Arts classes. A framework that uses the writer’s practice and experiences rather than prescriptive assignments is adaptable to any discipline. Writing as thinking is not confined to a single subject; it’s merely a matter of considering the kind of thinking we would like students to practice in different disciplines, and then designing experiences around them.” (p. 232)
“The rates of anxiety and depression, the expressions of a love of learning (but hating school), the open longing for a time when they can get off the treadmill and actually live lives oriented around their desires, all demonstrate a world where students are not being heard, not being respected.” (p. 238)
Maria Grace, Courtship and Marriage in Jane Austen’s World (2016)
Lesley Adkins and Roy Adkins, Jane Austen’s England: Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods (2013)
I read both these books to make me a better beta reader of a friend’s Regency romance novels. (She writes as Gigi Lynn, and she can turn a tale.) When she essentially dared me to try to write a Regency short story, since I write short stories, I went back to them.
They’re useful and informative for the purpose.
That’s most of what I’ve read in the past two years, roughly, that’s big enough to be called a book, and not counting scripture.
Thanks for reading. I hope you found something which intrigued you.
Do you want to ask what I’m reading now? That stack is so large I’m not sure whether it’s merely delicious or actually embarrassing. For some (but not complete) insight into this question, see me on Goodreads.
From the Author
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