Sunday, January 4, 2009

three books I never get tired of reading

*Note: for the record, I tried to upload photos of each bookcover next to each entry, but it would only disply them on top -- if any of you know how to change this, please let me know, since I think the post would be even better if it had the accompanying photos.

1. On Writing (Stephen King).
It's one of those books that's so simple in language and form, yet so chock full of little nuggets. His memoir is great-- it's rather fascinating to see where he came from and how he came to be who he is as a writer. The instructional part is equally great in that it's common-sensical. I don't agree with everything he says or suggests, but I have several pieces of his advice. In fact, I think it was his stance on "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things overall: read a lot and write a lot" (I don't think I've quoted accurately, but you get the gist) that put me on a whole new level as a writer. When I first read On Writing (a Christmas gift from my twin brother, god bless him), I had just gotten my bachelor's degree and was immersed in my masters. All my reading was academic in nature. But at King's insistence, I made it a point to read more fiction, read more books for pleasure. It was slow-going and hard in the beginning, especially w/ all that student writing to read. But the more I read, the more I absorbed the styles of those whom I was reading. And eventually, reading became the solace for (from?) all the academic and tedious stuff, rather than a chore upon chore.

Equally fascinating is the analysis of some of his own works, namely Misery. Interestly enough, I'm not a fan of King's stories simply because I'm not a fan of that genre (I have enough nightmares from eating chocolate before bed, thank you). So I've not read any of his stuff, w/ the exception of his nonfiction. (I used to teach an essay that he had originally published in Playboy, of all places, called "Why We Crave Horror Movies" that was reprinted in every freshman composition reader as an example of the rhetorical mode called "causal analysis" -- given how much King dislikes the freshman theme paper, he must cringe to know this. But it was one of my favorite essays at the time, especially to teach. And I listened to an audio reading of "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" once -- love the film, of course. But, as usual, I digress). But I didn't have to read Misery to get it, and to love the conversation.

Other nuggets: stay away from the adverbs (although, in hindsight, I didn't adhere to that rule well enough in Faking It -- I'll chalk it up to being a rookie fiction writer at the time), and don't use words that are outside your style or the vernacular of the character just because it sounds more literary or intelligent. I offer this to my students constantly.

2. Straight Man (Richard Russo).
This was my first (and favorite) Richard Russo novel. I purchased it from my friend Mary at her yard sale for 25 cents (or maybe she just gave it to me -- I can't remember). It came at a time when I was starting to read more comedic pieces of writing because I wanted to write more comedic pieces of writing. My twin brother had been pestering me to read both David Sedaris and Bill Bryson (I didn't pick up Bryson for another couple of years thanks to my friend Julian (name change), but Me Talk Pretty One Day actually comes fourth on the list).

I read much of Straight Man at the coffee shop formerly known as Uncle Jon's in North Datmouth, MA, just minutes from UMD. And I laughed out loud while reading it, constantly, oblivious to who might be sitting nearby, staring at the crazy girl sitting in the comfy chair. I love it because so much of it rings familiar. If I didn't know any better, I'd think Railton was a variation of UMD, and the surrounding towns of N. Dartmouth and New Bedford minus the fishing community. Its English department was chock full of loonies and wise-asses and adjuncts w/ cramped offices on the second floor while the tenured were on the third, and so on. Yeah, I knew this world well, and loved it for all its absurdities. And Hank, complete w/ Groucho nose-&-glasses, was plain hilarious, yet a character I'd never come across before in my young reading life. He's so damn likable, even when he was downright obnoxious. I like this male perspective that Russo provides so well.

Straight Man inspired me to write my own academic farce, a novel called Tenure that is currently still in pieces. I love it, but I wonder if I will ever be able to finish it. It's loaded with great characters, but low on plot. I further wonder if it was the one novel that I really did write just for me, because I got to make the relationship that had failed so disappointingly (love that adverb!) in reality a smashing success in fiction, complete w/ great sex and blowout fights.

I went on to read Empire Falls (which I liked) and an abridged audio version of Nobody's Fool (well read by Kevin Spacey -- wish I'd gotten the unabridged), plus a couple of short stories, and I still have Bridge of Sighs sitting on my shelf, waiting patiently. But Straight Man is the one I keep coming back to.

3. My Name is Asher Lev (Chiam Potok).
I had an art teacher in 9th grade who told us that if we were serious about becoming artists, then we should read this book. My parents had also read and loved it. I think I finally picked it up around 19 or 20 (which happened to be one of my dormant reading periods -- a whole other story I'd rather not tell).

Asher Lev is riveting. The first paragraph is still one of my favorite intros of all time. By the time you finish reading it, you want to walk down that Brooklyn street, and you want to go into the museum and stare at his paintings. You wish it was there. You wish you could see it. (And yet, if they ever made a movie, and I think they did, I wouldn't want to see it portrayed on film. There's something delicious about only being able to imagine it but not actually see it.) The charaters, the rituals, the anguish, the suffering. And the drawing -- oh, the obsessive drawing. To some small degree, I understood that world, too, although it had never been my world. I wasn't the artist that Asher was. I didn't have the need (not the way I have the need to write). But I understood the nature of the composition, the not knowing where it comes from. I understood its truth. And while I didn't know Hasidism, I certainly knew what it meant to be devoutly religious.

To this day, every time I read Asher Lev, I want to pick up my pencils and paintbrushes again and go right to work.

Runners up:
  • the aforementioned David Sedaris Me Talk Pretty One Day (and "The Santaland Diaries" from Holidays on Ice is an annual tradition -- read it aloud at your next Christmas party)
  • my twin brother's story "The Dracula Syndrome" that he wrote when he was eighteen and published in our high school literary magazine -- still makes me laugh (he'll cringe that I mentioned it on this blog)
  • Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, but only on audiobook. I prefer to have Bryson read it to me -- I love his voice and his dry inflection. No one combines terrific storytelling, finely detailed descriptions and well-researched info that turns into excellent trivia, and hilarity as well as he does.
Next post: three tv shows/films I never get tired of watching.

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