Archive for the ‘Turn the Page’ Category
One of the things I love most about the MFA program that I’m in is that it requires of me a tremendous amount of reading. Every month I have to read and write a response to three books. This requirement forces me to focus closely on how a book is written, how its essence impacts its readers and how I might learn to do the same sort of thing in my own writing.
When I applied to UAA’s low-residency MFA program I had to choose between fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I ended up choosing fiction; for me personally it is the most challenging. But I want to study all three. So in order to appease myself I have not excluded poetry or non-fiction from my reading lists.
Right now I’m working on writing a story that is about a place as much as it is about the people in it and I’ve tried to choose books to read that will aid me in this process. This month I was lucky to have stumbled upon a new book written by an Alaskan author who does this so eloquently that I feel I could read it over and over again and each time glean a new angle in my approach to writing about the way a place can influence and shape the people who reside there.
I was initially drawn to the memoir, Faith of Cranes: Finding Hope and Family in Alaska by Hank Lentfer, because of its title. Sandhill cranes return to my neighborhood outside of Homer every summer and I’ve always felt honored to share space with them. Their return every spring is one of the most hopeful things I know of. My own teenaged children, who don’t always seem terribly observant of the natural world, take notice of the cranes and are always thrilled when they first see them flying overhead at the end of every long winter. When the cranes leave each September, almost always on the 16th day of the month, it’s with mixed emotions; we’re in awe of the magic of migration and already nostalgic for the summer days that went by so quickly.
I was also drawn to the book because of the author’s name. It turns out that the author’s parents live here in Homer and are huge supporters and users of the library where I work. The nosey side of me that is always trying to make connections was eager to read the writing of Jack and Mary Lentfer’s son.
Hank Lentfer’s story is a story of coming of age, a story of finding himself trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense but most importantly it’s a story of love. Hank heartbreakingly loves the place where he lives and the wild places where he hunts deer and picks berries and harvests salmon. His story is of coming to terms with his fear of losing the land where he finds spiritual and physical sustenance. It’s also a story of love for the people who share in his connection to a place and the realization that the loss that ultimately goes hand in hand with love is beautiful and hopeful in its own right.
So many of the books that I read, even some of the great ones, are enjoyable and thought provoking in the moment of the reading. But not all of them stay with me. Faith of Cranes stands out because since I’ve read it I find myself mulling it over, considering the choices I’ve made, thinking about the ways I’d like for my own life to be more thoughtful and more closely tied to nature. And it leaves me asking important questions, a few of which are below:
- How different would the world be if all parents, before conception, considered the responsibility, the joy, the loss and the beauty of bringing a child into existence? The chapter in Lentfer’s book entitled, “Letter to an Unborn Child” was striking in its honesty and its raw expression of his fears about becoming a father in a world that is filled with war, environmental degradation and disconnection.
- How much living are we, as a culture, missing out on by buying into a consumer-driven mentality? By choosing to slow down and live with less we would be giving ourselves more opportunities to develop friendships, deepen the bonds we share with our families and have more time for self-reliance and art. We know this, and yet it is difficult to extricate our lives from the cycle of filling our days with jobs and tasks we don’t find meaningful. Why is it so hard?
- As a person who is concerned about things like climate change, wilderness preservation, clean air, clean water and the protection of habitat how do I not lose hope when the news is overwhelmingly bad on all those fronts? And along those same lines how can creativity, love and hopefulness make a difference?
If you are interested in an intimate portrayal of a life in coastal Alaska, if you love a place on this earth, if you feel a connection to cranes or any other kind of wildlife, if you appreciate a well-crafted story or if you simply would like to escape for a while into a sensual, thoughtful world, I highly recommend Faith of Cranes. And if you end up reading it, I’d love to know the questions it summoned for you. I’d also love to know what books you’ve read recently that have stuck with you, caused you to consider changes you’d maybe like to make in your own life.
It’s Alaska Book Week. And for the literary crowd it’s been pretty exciting. The internet is abuzz with Alaskan book talk. In the library I put together a display featuring books written by our local, Homer area authors and next week we’ll be hosting a reading of twelve of those authors, each reading for a few minutes from a piece of their own work. An Alaskan, Debby Dahl Edwardson was even named as a finalist for the National Book Award this week for her Young Adult book My Name is Not Easy.
Tonight at the college there will be a panel and public discussion in which Nancy Lord, Tom Kizzia, Rich Chiappone, Miranda Weiss and Erin Hollowell will discuss the books that influenced their lives and their writing. So besides being in awe of the fact that I live in the same town as all of these great authors, I’ve been asking myself that same question this week. What books influenced my life?
Nancy Lord wrote an essay called On Rereading Siddhartha where she reflects on the impact the book Siddhartha had on her as a young teenager. Over the past couple of days Miranda Weiss has posted the question “What books made you?” on her Facebook page. We’ve got Anne of Green Gables and the Little House books. People mentioned Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Edgar Allen Poe. A lot of the classics were listed as well as a few contemporary wonders like one of my own favorites, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barabara Kingsolver. I’ll be interested to see what others have to say tonight at the panel discussion and I plan on taking notes, mining the conversation for reading ideas.
My own reading history is one that is a bit embarrassing to admit. While Nancy Lord may have been ready for Siddhartha at age thirteen, I was not. I was consumed with worry about boys and my hair at age thirteen. And while many children were at home reading the Little House books, I was watching it on television, along with other shows like Three’s Company and Welcome Back, Kotter. I remember owning one book that I treasured, Heidi by Johanna Spyri, but I don’t actually remember reading it. I did love the movie though.
I was encouraged to read the Bible as a child. I would get these little pamphlets from church that would have a mapped out plan for reading the entire Bible in one year. Every night I would read a certain number of verses and then mark them off on the chart. As far as I’m concerned there is no better way to make a child want to go to sleep than to have them read Bible verses before bed. I remember absolutely nothing of significance in all of that Bible reading. No epiphanies, no moments of enlightenment. I just remember trying like heck not to fall asleep.
In middle school someone was passing around Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume. I may have read that one, I don’t fully remember. I at least read the part about periods. I learned more about menstruation from Judy Blume than I did from anywhere else.
In a high school English class we were assigned The Great Gatsby. I did not read it all the way through, and I did not care. I still managed to get an A in the class somehow, probably because although I was late to develop an appreciation for fine literature I was well ahead of the game when it came to bullshitting.
It wasn’t until about my senior year in high school that I came across a book that changed it all for me. I don’t recall its title, but the author was Danielle Steele. Oh yes, it got my attention. It had glamor. It had conflict. It had SEX! Aside from a few picture books as a young child, it was the first book I remember reading from cover to cover.
At the library I sometimes hear people complaining about the “trash” that kids read these days. The other day I heard a father say of his son, “If it doesn’t have a dragon or a vampire, my kid won’t read it.”
I wanted to say, “At least he’s reading!”
Assuming I live a long time, and I’ve got pretty good genetics on my side, I will have time to read plenty of good books, some of them, thankfully, more than once. I can forgive myself for being a very late bloomer when it comes to literature. The good news is that it happened. I learned to love really good books. It happened at the University of Montana where I was exposed to authors that wrote about the very surroundings in which I found myself. William Kittredge, Rick Bass, Richard Hugo, John Maclean. They wrote about the West, which was familiar, but they made me see it in a new way. They somehow validated my rural upbringing.
The biggest thing though, was that I was ready. I was finally ready to read.
The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference is underway, and I’m feeling lucky that such an event happens right here in my home town. World class authors come here, to me, making it just so easy (and affordable) to learn from them. I get in my car, drive about fifteen miles, make myself comfortable in the conference room at Land’s End Resort, and people like Michael Cunningham, Dinty Moore, Bill Roorbach, Peggy Shumaker, Sherry Simpson, Nancy Lord and Rich Chiappone (to name just a few) offer workshops, answers to writing questions and expert advice. It’s pretty cool.
Although I’ve been dabbling in writing for several years, I’m a newbie to the writing world. The KBWC is a good way to get a sampling of what it’s all about. Jennifer Pooley, a senior editor from HarperCollins imprint William Morrow is here, as is agent April Eberhardt. It’s been nice to meet both of these very approachable women because they remind me that agents and editors are real people; something I’m guessing that most of you already knew.
Here are a few morsels I’ve gleaned from the offerings so far:
- I use the word “I” way to much in my writing and I think I’m going to have to start looking for alternative ways to talk about myself so as to not bore the poor readers or sound like a narcissist.
- Bill Roorbach says to call writing “work” and not “writing,” because the guilt-ridden side of us won’t let us skip out on work and it’s easy to decline social engagements when you say, “Sorry, I have to work.”
- Dinty Moore’s workshop on miniature nonfiction validated my love for keeping things short and gave me some great ideas for future projects.
- Michael Cunningham says it’s important to stay engaged with a piece of writing by visiting it every day, even if you don’t have much time. He also says to “write smarter than you are.”
- Listening to Peggy Shumaker read from her new book, “Gnawed Bones” reminded me that I love poetry, especially when it’s as accessible and beautiful as hers.
- And Bill Roorbach says that gardening is writing. I love that.
One of the problems or, some would say, blessings of working at the library is that I come across so many interesting books; way more than I’d ever have time to read and still be a functioning member of society. In an attempt to keep myself focused, which means not start twelve books simultaneously, I have been compiling a list of books I hope to read in 2010.
I’ve started out the year with Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth: Awakening Your Life’s Purpose” and Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Along the way I’m sure I’ll add to the list because there has to be room for spontaneity. Sometimes a book just calls out to you and you have to read it, whether it’s on your list or not.
Here’s what I’ve got so far, and I’m open to suggestions.
*Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (I will never have to tell another person I’ve never read Jane Austen.)
*Snow – Orhan Pamuk
*Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck
*The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
*Ordinary Wolves – Seth Kantner
*The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides (His book Middlesex was excellent.)
*Cutting For Stone – Abraham Verghese (People at the library keep recommending this one.)
*The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver (I have to read everything she writes.)
*The Autobiography of a Yogi – Paramahansa Yogananda
*The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
*Stitches: A Memoir – David Small (The graphic novel Blankets got me hooked, and I hear this one is great.)
*Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro (The goddess of short stories.)
*Juliet Naked – Nick Hornby (Any book written by the man who wrote High Fidelity deserves to be read.)
*The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
*A Passage To India – E.M. Forster
*Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
*Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse
*Strength in What Remains – Tracy Kidder
Over the past few days I’ve been trying to remember the books that I’ve read from cover to cover in 2009. Lately it seems like I have a short attention span with reading and my list of unfinished books is much longer than my list of finished books. By listing the books I’ve completed I’ve managed to make myself feel a little better. The year has come and gone and I still haven’t organized my closet or painted my living room but, by God, I did finish a few books. Imagine how smug I’d feel if I could tally all the blog posts, opinion pieces and news articles I’ve read on the internet.
*The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
—— I read this book, with its intense description of hunger, during the holidays, when I was surrounded by food.
*The Help – Kathryn Stockett
*The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows
*Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout
——–I understand why this won the Pulitzer Prize.
*Amy and Isabelle – Elizabeth Strout
*Raising Ourselves – Velma Wallis
*The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
———Of all the books on this list I think this one made the biggest impact.
*First Indian on the Moon – Sherman Alexie
*Fancy Dancing – Sherman Alexie
——- I actually sent Sherman Alexie fan mail after reading this one. I’d never done that.
*Eva Underground – Dandi Daley Mackall
*The Gathering – Anne Enright
*The Well and the Mine – Gin Phillips
*Saddle Up Your Own White Horse – Saundra Pelletier
*Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life – Nancy Lord
——– I appreciated most of the essays in this book, but the last one about her aged father is beautiful and had me crying over my breakfast one morning. (I took a memoir writing class from the author last winter.)
*The Complete Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
——– A graphic novel about a girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution. Iranians are real people.
*The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards – Robert Boswell
*Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone – Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg
——-I was inspired to read this one after taking a Carter Family Singing class at Alaska Traditional Music Camp last summer.
*The Worst Hard Time – Timothy Egan
And the next two are ones I reread in 2009.
*The Shipping News – Annie Proulx
——–My favorite novel.
*Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
———I had to reread this one after watching the movie; to compare and contrast.
There may be more, but that’s what I can remember. Happy New Year!
I started working at the local public library just over four years ago. Besides getting first dibs on the new releases and getting to help choose which books to buy, another benefit of my job is the amount of money I save. I know you don’t have to be an employee of a library in order to reap the benefits of them, but I didn’t really use it to its full potential until I worked there. I am continually reminded of the fact that I can get my hands on almost any book I’d ever want to read for free. Sometimes though, I come across a book that I feel compelled to own. Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” is one such book.
Barbara Kingsolver has been one of my favorite authors since I first read “The Bean Trees” back in 1990. And I’ve referred to her personal essays in “High Tide in Tucson” many times when I’ve been trying to transform my own thoughts into writing. When I read the premise of “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” I knew it would be a good investment so a couple years ago, on the day it was released, I made a special trip to The Homer Bookstore and forked over $26.95 plus 6% sales tax for a brand new hardcover.
In case you aren’t familiar with the book it’s about a year in the author’s life when she makes a concerted effort to feed herself and her family only food that is locally produced. She describes raising turkeys and chickens, growing a garden and seeking out goods produced by other farmers and ranchers near her community.
The concept wasn’t entirely new to me. I grew up eating lots of food that my parents had either grown or killed themselves. In my adult life I eat salmon and berries that my family harvests each summer and I keep chickens for the fresh eggs they provide. We try every year, with varying degrees of success, to grow a vegetable garden. But Barbara Kingsolver’s book inspired me to take it all a step further.
This year we bought half of a cow that spent the summer grazing at the head of Kachemak Bay, just a few miles east of our house. Every time I drive to and from town I pass the place where it was born, and the butcher shop where it was processed. It doesn’t get much more local than that. I spent the better part of Friday afternoon sledding three huge boxes of meat to our house, and rearranging the salmon and halibut in our freezer to make room for it. Somehow I managed to make it all fit. The arrangement is precarious however and I feel like I should post avalanche warning signs on the upright freezer in the garage.
There’s something deeply satisfying about having a full freezer, and knowing the stories of how all of the food came to be there. For me it’s the stories that make life more interesting and everything has a story; every item I buy, every tune I play on my fiddle, every person I meet, and every meal I prepare for my family. I guess that explains why I feel compelled to write, and why I’ll never be able to read all the books on my list. It’s a good thing I don’t have to pay for all of them.