The Year of Women (Authors)! #ReadWomen2014

Votes for Women

2014 is the Year of Women! Well, it’s the year of the women authors, anyway. And it’s about time! Women authors dominated the “Best of 2013” lists, and from the looks of things we have plenty more to look forward to in 2014.

According to a recent article in TIME Magazine, “Women read more books than men do… the 76% of American adults who read a book in 2013 — in e-book, audio or print formats — could be broken down to 82% of women and a mere 69% of men.” In spite of this, the major media outlets still publish far more reviews of books by male authors than female authors. The Guardian reported that “New York Review of Books, for example, in 2012 16% of reviewers were women, with 22% of the books reviewed written by women. A similar investigation in the Guardian found that the UK is no better: in March 2013, 8.7% of books reviewed in the London Review of Books were by women, rising to 26.1% in the New Statesmen, and 34.1% in the Guardian.”

Well, this year that changes—We hope. It all started with Joanna Walsh, a writer and illustrator who vowed to read only women in 2014, and designed New Year’s cards (bookmarks) to go along with her vow. Walsh’s bookmarks listed women writers on the backs, which she said she hoped might inspire recipients “if not vow to read women exclusively, look up some of the writers I’ve drawn on the front or listed on the back.” Many news outlets have followed Joanna’s lead by either vowing to read/review only (or at least more) women authors this year, or by publishing their own lists of women writers to read in 2014.

Not one to be left behind, I have my own list of women authors to read. In fact, my syllabus for this year’s Rediscovering the Classics reading group focused on an exploration of genre, featuring solely women authors. Here are the books our literary group has vowed to read this year:

  • An Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • My Life in France by Julia CHild
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  • Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy
  • The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Furthermore, while I did not set out to purposefully read only women last year or this year, my list of Best Books of 2013 was all women, and my reading list thus far for 2014 has included Donna Tartt, Karen Joy Fowler, Jo Baker, Brenna Yovanoff, and Lisa O’Donnell. My TBR list includes many, many more fantastic women authors.

So how about YOU? Will you participate in the #ReadWomen2014 movement? As Daniel E. Pritchard writes in The Critical Flame, “nothing will change if people do not act morally within their sphere of control.” Do you plan to read for equality, or will you simply further the status quo? There are SO many funny, serious, adventurous, thrilling, forthright, satirical, political, etc. women authors out there, that there is absolutely no excuse for ANY person’s reading list to not be at least 50/50 men/women. No excuse, that is, except laziness or sexism.

What’s on YOUR reading list?

I’m a Gullible Sap After All–or–How to Sell Books to Cynics

Yesterday’s Indiespensible delivery was its usual treasure trove of literary fun. The main attraction was Naomi Benaron’s Running the Rift; and judging from the two pages I’ve been able to read since it arrived, I anticipate an emotional but engrossing journey. The dust-jacket describes the book as the story of Jean Patrick Nkuba, “a Tutsi in a world that has become increasingly restrictive and violent for his people.” The novel “follows the progress of Jean Patrick from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life.” It doesn’t sound like it will be a light and easy read, but I’m certain it will be an enriching one.

Of most interest to me thus far in the shipment has been The Algonquin Reader, Volume 1 Issue 1, from Algonquin Books. When I first caught sight of the small, creamy, cardstock-covered folio I thought it was a new literary magazine and my heart leaped with joy. Upon perusal I discovered that it was not a literary magazine after all, but a “periodical in which [Algonquin] authors introduce their new work in their own words.” My initial response upon reading this was to be disappointed; after all, I already get too many e-mails and ads from everybody and their brother trying to sell me something. This marketing overload has made me cynical and wary of every sales pitch, even the ones from the publishers I like! As I read that first page of The Algonquin Reader my jaded cynicism reared its ugly head and whispered we aren’t gullible enough to get trapped by this clever bit of marketing.

But gullible I was, because I kept right on reading; and trapped I am, because it turns out The Algonquin Reader focused on the authors, not just the books–a strategy which sucked me in completely. The Reader contains excerpts from five forthcoming Algonquin books, with each excerpt preceded by an essay written by the author, in which the author gives some background about how the book was conceived, the process of writing it, how it relates to other books or life events, etc. Because these essays are written by the authors, they are much more interesting than a dust-jacket, and are somewhat reminiscent of The Paris Review interviews (although not nearly as long, and not quite as focused or in-depth.)

What was particularly interesting to me was to read what subjects the author considered important and chose to address, rather than what subjects an interviewer might choose to address. Robert Goolrick’s essay about “The Passion of Place, The Place of Passion” made me think of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Brandon W. Jones’ untitled essay about his growing interest in how Westerners view North Korean society resonated with my own recent curiosity about the strictness and sadness of that same country. And Ted Heller’s description of his addiction to online poker had me utterly fascinated.

At the end of the day, The Algonquin Reader is just a very interesting and well-done marketing tool, so I’m not sure I would pay money for it; but I did find myself enjoying it very much, and ruminating on it after I finished. I suspect it has paid for itself, because I am already resolved to purchase Ted Heller’s Pocket Kings and Robert Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful when they come out in March and June, respectively; and I’m on the fence about Kris D’Agostino’s The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, but liable to be easily persuaded by a good review when it comes out in March.

Getting back to the Indiespensible shipment, I was delighted by the little notions pertaining to the forthcoming Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith: scraps of pretty cotton cloth, a bag of Earl Grey tea, and some lovely vintage postcards of Amsterdam (which I have already decided to send to my brother-in-law, who lived there for a while.)

And so the shelf of TBR books groans under the weight of yet another new book or two. If only I could read them as fast as these evil and crafty publishers are able to sell them to me, my shelves–and my pocketbook–would be so much healthier.

Happy Reading!

I Sit Down for a Conversation with Stephen King…

…and Neil Gaiman, and Christopher Moore, and Alexander McCall Smith, and Stephanie Meyer, and…

No, I don’t have some secret “in” with all my favorite writers–oh how I wish I did!–my conversations with these authors (and many others) are all compliments of Borders media “Borders Presents“; a collection of short interviews with authors you love, authors you like, and some authors you don’t even know.

So, thanks to Borders online I got to spend a lazy Sunday drinking coffee and watching interviews with some of my favorite authors; it was sheer delight! I always love hearing or reading interviews with authors because the topics of conversation are the subjects that are closest to my heart, and which I rarely get to discuss: writing techniques, where ideas come from, whether or not it’s possible to write fiction that is not at least in some way autobiographical, truth in fiction, the elusive muse, etc., etc., etc.

But I think perhaps my favorite subject to hear discussed in author interviews is literary influences. It is always thought-provoking and revealing to hear an author talk about which books have inspired them; which authors they considered mentors or heroes; what literature, music, or events had the biggest impact on their lives and writing careers. Jane O’Connor (author of the Fancy Nancy books) admits that dressing up as a child and being “proper” for visits from her great aunt was the eventual inspiration for her delightfully over-the-top title character. Stephen King talks with such great feeling and admiration about the book The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen that I am inspired to read the book myself.

A few years ago I found a jewel of a book about this very subject called The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them. I’m telling you, this book changed my life! It gave me a fascinating insight into the minds of writers, and gave me more ideas for my TBR (To Be Read) list than I can list here.

If you’re interested in watching the interviews but don’t want to wade through the entire page of them, I can tell you that my favorites so far are the interviews with Stephen King, who is always a delight in my opinion, and one of the few people I would love to sit down and have lunch with; Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser; and Alexander McCall Smith, especially his second interview about his addiction to writing serial novels. My least favorites were Neil Gaiman, who was either asked all the wrong questions or is quite the egomaniac because all he could do was talk about how much everybody likes him (and yet his books are always imaginative and mind-bending); and nine-year-old Alec Greven, author of How To Talk To Girls, who was actually very eloquent and possessed, but I have a nine year old, and I don’t yet want her to know (or even have a desire to know) how to talk to boys or get a boyfriend. Sorry Alec!

And I think that’s enough run on sentences for one blog post. So I’ll finish up by saying…

Thank you Borders, and thank you to all the writers who gave these wonderful interviews. It has been such a delight to watch them! To all my readers, go watch them now!

If My Brain Is God–We’re All In Trouble

I’m a fan and regular reader of the wonderful website The Writer’s Almanac, on which I can read a new poem every day (some good, some bad, and some absolutely excellent), and about writers, artists, and historical figures whose birthdays or histories feature somehow on any given day. Today is the birthday of Timothy Leary, a person about whom I must admit I know very little. But I found myself with tears in my eyes as I read the short biography written on the Writer’s Almanac.

The line that really brought me up short was this one, a quote from Mr. Leary himself;

“I awoke to the consciousness that I was trapped in a dark room, in a
hastily constructed, thin-walled stage-prop home in Berkeley, California. I
was a rootless city-dweller. An anonymous city employee who drove to work
each morning in a long line of commuter cars, and drove home each night and
drank martinis and looked like and acted like several million middle-class
liberal intellectual robots.”

My god, how many of us have felt like that at one point or another? I know I have. Okay, I don’t drink martinis, but I have my numbing agent of choice, and I certainly feel rootless and disconnected with the world at times–be it the natural world, the spiritual world, or even my own community.
What strikes me the most about Leary’s biography is that he seems to have been as lost and adrift outwardly as most of us are inwardly. Leary fled from country to country as most of us flee from interest to interest or hobby to hobby, never able to settle in one place or on one thing long enough to make a real connection. And I’m not sure what to think of the drug use. I grew up in the Nancy Reagan “Just say No!” era, and subsequently have a healthy fear of illegal substances; but I also tend to think that there is value in every learning experience. So what was it for Leary–an unhealthy escapism or a driving desire to learn and experience all that he could? I don’t know, but I can identify with both of those.
Perhaps that’s what made my unexpected reading of Leary’s short biography so moving; I see in him my own internal struggles, but he did it on the public stage.
(Click here to find books by Timothy Leary)

Kay Ryan’s "Snack-Size" Poems Will Stick To Your Ribs

Our new Poet Laureate Kay Ryan describes her short poems as “snack-size”, and on the one hand, she’s right–her poems are so short they’re almost haiku. But don’t let their size deceive you; these poems are anything but snacks. Take as an example her poem entitled “Hope” (from the book Elephant Rocks):

Hope

What’s the use
of something
as unstable
and diffuse as hope–
the almost-twin
of making-do,
the isotope
of going on:
what isn’t in
the envelope
just before it isn’t:
the always tabled
righting of the present.

Nothing snack-like about the content of that particular poem! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All of Ryan’s poems tap into deceptively simple truths; honest morsels to which your first thought is to shrug and think well of course that’s true, but which upon further reflection leave you agog, mouth hanging open in amazement at the shades of complexity to be found in one simple truth. “Mirage Oases” (Also from Elephant Rocks) is just one of many of Kay Ryan’s poems that leave me open-mouthed:

Mirage Oases

First among places
susceptible to trespass
are mirage oases

whose graduated pools
and shaded grasses, palms
and speckled fishes give
before the lightest pressure
and are wrecked.

For they live
only in the kingdom
of suspended wishes,

thrive only at our pleasure
checked.

I have to admit that I was surprised to find myself falling in love with Kay Ryan’s poetry. There are very few contemporary poets to whom I feel drawn. It was only after hearing an interview with Ryan on NPR’s On Point that I felt compelled to pick up one of her books. Ryan reads a few of her poems during the course of her show, and after hearing her read the first poem I was hooked. Her voice is rich and hypnotic, giving context to each poem with mere sound, no back-story or explanation was ever necessary.

Once I started to spend some quality time with Ryan’s poetry, it seemed only natural that she would become one of my favorites. Ryan’s poetry puts me somewhat in mind of Emily Dickinson, another singer of deceptively simple songs with an endless well of truth and meaning.

I’m glad to have Kay Ryan added to the roster of United States Poets Laureate, and not just because she’s a native of California. (A state that–as a native Californian myself–I feel is grossly under represented.) I like that her poetry is unpretentious. It is (to use an over-used word) accessible. I don’t feel that her poems are pushy, or require that I cup my chin and look skyward. But at the same time, Ryan asks that her readers do put sincere thought into age-old assumptions

I will end this post with the poem of Ryan’s that first hooked me. Everything after this one has only drawn me in deeper. I’m a willing victim, held spellbound by the cadence of her lines, the honest simplicity of her themes, and perhaps a little by the decidedly un-intimidating length of the poems; each one of which seems to say, “Oh what’s the harm in reading just one more?” This poem, in which the author asks God to please simplify the world a bit, seems a particularly apt closing to a blog post about a poet who makes us see more by showing us less.

Blandeur (from the book Say Uncle)

If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth’s
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon.
Make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.

W.W.T.D.? (What Would Tolkien Do?)

A good book will draw you in and hold your attention regardless of your knowledge (or lack thereof) of the political history surrounding the story. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien is a good example of this. Very few people love Middle-Earth enough to get through the textbook-like Silmarillion, and yet The Lord of the Rings is an almost universally appealing saga. This is because at its core The Lord of the Rings is about the characters—about Frodo and Sam and Strider—and their adventures right now, not about the dates and history that brought them to the Prancing Pony on that dark and stormy night. Sure all of those facts and figures have a bearing on our heroes, but it’s enough for Tolkien to allude to that history. What we as readers are really interested in is the thoughts and actions of our heroes in the here and now.

The same is true for just about any good adventure tale or romantic ballad out there. If the tale is told well enough, we can trust that the narrator is giving us the history we need to appreciate the story.

However . . .

As anyone who has read The Silmarillion will tell you, appreciation and immersion are two very different things, and Tolkien knew it. That’s why he wrote an entire history textbook for his fantasy world. Your enjoyment and experience of the story is expanded and enriched if you take the time to learn the history of your characters and their culture, to really immerse yourself in their world and understand it as they understand it; as the author understands it.

I am currently re-reading one of my favorite contemporary books, Kartography, for the third time. The author, Kamila Shamsie, grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, in the 1970s and 1980s, and this is where and when her story is set. The first time I read the book I was so blown away by the beautiful language and compelling story that it barely registered when I came upon reference to Pakistani history that I didn’t understand. All I wanted to do was devour the story in the book, and Ms. Shamsie gave me all the information I needed to fall in love with Kartography without knowing the history of Pakistan.

The second time I read the book, I couldn’t let myself off so easily. I was curious about the war the characters kept referring to, and why there was tension between the Punjabi and Bengali characters. I picked up on some new subtleties, and was not so quick to skim over the unfamiliar references. I looked up the words I didn’t know, such as muhajir (immigrant) and Ami (Mother). But still I must admit that I didn’t probe too deeply into the history of the story or the region.

This time, however, in my third reading of this excellent novel, I can’t seem to get enough of the history of these characters that I have come to know as well as I know my own children. My atlas is permanently open on my living room floor as I look up cities and roads that figure in the story. I have Wikipedia’s explanation of the Bangladesh Liberation War bookmarked in my internet browser, as well as the history of the British colonization of India. And I must admit, I now appreciate the book on a whole new level. My understanding of the main characters has much more depth, and even peripheral characters have taken on an importance I would never have seen in my first or second readings. My historical research increases not only my appreciation of the book itself, but also my appreciation of the author’s storytelling abilities. As much as I loved the book before, I understood only a fraction of the thought and subtlety that must have gone into the creation of Kartography.
If you’ve made it this far down in your reading of this blog post, I thank you. I won’t keep you much longer. What I’m trying to say with this lengthy diatribe is that the great books—the ones we love, that get a hold of our hearts and won’t let go—deserve to be read more than once; sometimes three or four times. Not only that, but they deserve a closer look. Do a little research into the setting, the time period. Find out as much as you can about the author, and the circumstances under which she was writing her novel. All of these things will enrich your reading experience ten-fold. It will bring you a greater understanding of literature, of writing, of human nature—and even of yourself.

George Orwell–Author, Journalist… Blogger?

Most of us know about George Orwell the writer; best known as the author of the novels Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm, it comes as no surprise that Orwell was a journalist as well; but could a man who lived from June 1903 to January 1950 also be a blogger?

Indeed he can! Thanks to the creative minds at The Orwell Prize, we now have The Orwell Diaries–a website in which the journal entries of George Orwell from 1938 to 1942 will be published in blog form, each one exactly 70 years to the day after it was first written. The first entry is from August 9, 1938 and is posted on August 9, 2008.

I love the idea of having the journal entries of any of my favorite writers posted on a semi-daily basis in the imminently friendly and readable blog format! What a stroke of brilliance! And from what I know about Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell was actually his pen name), he would feel this was exactly the right time to be publishing his words once more. With his keen insights into social inequalities and a strong opposition to authority of just about any kind, I wonder what Orwell would have thought and written about our current government administration.

The entries that have been posted thus far (there are only seven as of yet) focus mainly on Orwell’s physical surroundings–the weather, the season, flora and fauna–but I’m hoping that as the diary grows so will the subject matter. This is, after all, the man who had so much to say about other writers in his literary criticism, as well as publishing the following rules for writers in his essay “Politics and the English Language”:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, jargon word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I’m looking forward to continued reading of Orwell’s diaries. In my experience, Orwell had a keen mind, and a keener desire to change the world for the better. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have been able to write much of anything without his political idealism and a passion for improvement slipping in somehow. In spite of his sometimes dark themes, it seems an act of eternal optimism to continue writing for change as he did. I admire him for that, and look forward to getting to know him a little bit better.