reading 11.19.11

Although I note here what I intend to read and why I chose it, at the moment, here’s what I’m actually reading:

1 – The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. I bought this hardback book because I’ve become fascinated by process–the process of writing in particular. I’m on page xxiv. “The global skill of drawing a perceived object, person, landscape…requires only five basic component skills, no more…They are perceptual skills.”

One: the perception of edges. Two: the perception of spaces. Three: the perception of relationships. Four: the perception of lights and shadows. Five: the perception of the whole, or gestalt.

2 – Raw Silk by Janet Burroway, published in 1976. Already read this hardback twice–in 1990 and 1998. It’s a classic–a novel about a marriage falling apart. I’m on page 56.

I don’t run everywhere as I used to, and Oliver’s humor is not so fresh. But I thought that was age, and age doesn’t trouble me overmuch. I know that we’ve chosen compromises, but no choice has seemed to lead inevitably to another. I thought we could go this direction but keep our essential selves intact, and turn off any side road that took our fancy.

3 – Torch by Cheryl Strayed was recommended by a friend. Now I recommend this debut novel. I’m on page 207 of 311.  Cheryl has a new book coming out in March (Wild) and will be writing about How She Spends Her Days in January.

She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine. At other times it was something sharp like diamonds or shards of glass engraving her bones. Teresa explained these sensations to the doctor–the zipper, the grapes, the diamonds, and the glass–while he sat on his little stool with wheels and wrote in a notebook.

4 – The Best American Short Stories 2011. I wasn’t going to buy this, but after reading Claire Guyton’s review (in a series on each story in this volume), I ordered it. Am not disappointed. Have read the first story, reading the second as soon as I finish this post. From “Ceiling” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

Was he unhappy? It was not that he was unhappy, he told himself, it was simply that he had been long enough in his new life that he had begun to think of alternative lives, people he might have become, and doors he had not opened.

5 – An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski was recommended by Connie May Fowler at the last residency as a good book to read when preparing to give a lecture or a reading, both of which I’ll be doing at this upcoming residency. I’m on page 62 of 336.

There is a good side to this period of waiting. It drives you into such a state that all you can do is to long for your turn to get through with the thing that you are afraid of.

6 – So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. See what I’m reading now. I’m on page 52, just about to begin Chapter 5. Solidly good.

What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory–meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion–is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.

7 – Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns was recommended by several different people at the last residency. And it is lovely. I’ve read the first two chapters–the second one on metaphor is itself worth the price and space of the book (and it includes a right brain-left brain discussion). Theoretically on poetry but every bit as useful so far to a prose writer.

Obscurity must be a tool. It works to force the reader to ask questions that will direct him to an understanding…Any question that does not increase our understanding detracts from it.

Suggestion won’t work until the reader has enough information to brood about. The poem works when the reader can contemplate the relationship between its parts.

8 – The Empty Family by Colm Toibin. Hardback. It’s the November choice for my writing group. Very soothing writing. On the third story of nine. From “Silence,”

…no matter how much they talked of love or faithfulness or the unity of man and wife, no one would ever realize how apart people were in these hours, how deeply and singly themselves, how thoughts came that could never be shared or whispered or made known in any way. This was marriage, she thought, and it was her job to be calm about it. There were times when the grim, dull truth of it made her smile.

I don’t always read this many books at one time because all this unfinished-ness can get to me. But there is so much out there–I sometimes wonder how I can do anything other than read. The question of how we end up reading what we do in our lives is one I will return to.

no place on earth

It’s difficult to think of anything other than the stunning crimson and gold leaves outside my windows.

I have been doing too many other things lately. And I have come to the place where I need to set aside time for writing.

Why do you refuse to admit that in poetry, as if in a mirror, I attempt to collect and to see myself, to pass through and beyond myself.

Last week, for a few days, it was doing nothing–long walks on the beach, listening to the ocean, watching the sea foam extract itself from the waves that produced it and scatter down the beach. Staring at the flower of a jellyfish, remembering being stung as a kid.

Sunrise on the Atlantic. Beautiful, yes, but I prefer sunset on the Gulf.

Oh, this innate bad habit of always existing in places where I do not live, or in a time which is past or is yet to come.

One week until I send in my last packet. In seven weeks I’ll be in Vermont. In a little over eight weeks, I’ll have graduated.

The memory of it would have vanished utterly had he not enclosed it in a fortress of words…

No Place on Earth by Christa Wolf (born in 1929) is a different kind of book than what I usually read. Wolf is a German author, who in this slim volume writes about the imagined meeting in June of 1804 of an unknown female poet and a famous male writer at a social gathering “for tea and conversation.”  One hundred nineteen pages of almost no action and some dialogue. Mostly, it’s the back and forth of the relentless minds of these two characters, as if their minds were communing, on the subjects of life and death, the freedoms of men and women, the necessity of art:

That time should bring forth our desire, but not that which we desire most.
The repressed passions.
We are not worthy of that which we long for.
We must understand that longing needs no justification.

How We Spend Our Days: Mari Strachan

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Mari Strachan:

Everything has shifted slightly. Yesterday my husband left for two weeks to teach in Kenya. But today will be different, also, because I have to travel from my rural village south-eastwards to our capital city, Cardiff.

But, first things first. I drink a mug of coffee, Italian blend, and use the remainder of the hot water to mix a mash with some oats for the hens.As usual, they behave as if they haven’t been fed for a month and gobble up the mash, then race out of their pen to roam the garden and cluck and peck at everything as they go. They are comic creatures and invariably make me laugh. I shall tempt them back into their pen with chopped tomatoes and green leaves and corn before I leave; there, they will be perfectly safe from our nocturnal visitor, the fox. Some sunshine has been promised for today by the weather forecasters, so the plants in the glasshouse and the polytunnel need watering: tiny alpine strawberries, a good crop of tomatoes, spreading courgettes, the last of the filet beans, ripening butternut squashes, spinach, kale, salad leaves, fragrant coriander, parsley and mint – our smallholding is about eight hundred feet above sea level and the covered spaces lengthen our growing season by several weeks. Then I return indoors for breakfast and another cup of coffee, and to do some preparation for the event I am travelling to Cardiff to attend.

Literature Wales, the body which supports writers in Wales, has been offered a shop space in a prestigious new shopping development in the centre of the city, and it is being turned into a pop-up Lolfa Lên – a Literature Lounge – for a month. It has been set up at short notice and the event today is one of the first to take place there. In a ‘Meet the Author’ event Deborah Kay Davies and I, both Canongate authors, will be reading from our prose works and taking questions. I’m looking forward to meeting Deborah, and to being in Cardiff, the city where I attended university and worked for a while many years ago. My youngest son, Cai, lives and works there now, and I shall stay with him tonight.

The bus leaves from Aberaeron, down on the coast, and for the first half of its journey meanders through lush green countryside and villages and small towns: Felinfach, Llanbedr Pont Steffan, Llanybydder, Llanllwni, Llandysul, Pencader and then Caerfyrddin, the oldest town in Wales. Their names run off the tongue like a litany, the names of places have a powerful magic, conjuring up their history, their culture, their religion, their people. I like to use proper nouns when I write. My mind drifts in and out of the ideas and information I am gathering for my third book. The novel is at that nebulous stage where nothing is yet formed, so that when people ask me what it is about I sound completely incapable of forming a sentence let alone a novel when I reply. The second half of the journey is mostly on the motorway and not as conducive to gathering thoughts as the first half. Three hours and forty minutes after leaving Aberaeron, with an hour to spare before I have to be at the Lolfa Lên, the bus draws into Cardiff Bus Station, and Cai is there to meet me.

It is wonderful to chat to Deborah, to compare experiences, to hear about her current writing project, which sounds innovative and interesting. A small audience has gathered in the meantime, and we begin our readings. The Lolfa Lên opens out into the shopping precinct and passers-by stop to listen, though most of them resist attempts to bring then further inside! The audience has plenty of questions to ask of us both, and the time speeds past.

The evening ends with a meal in an Italian restaurant with Cai and Hannah, and a walk back through the centre of Cardiff to the area of Roath where I’m sleeping tonight. I lie in bed listening to the night-time sounds of the city, so different to my village where the susurration of the wind through the leaves of the beech trees and the calls of barn owls lull me to sleep. Tomorrow I shall walk back through the morning city to catch the bus, to make the same journey in reverse, to travel home.


1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • PURE by Andrew Miller, and I had been waiting impatiently for it to be published.

2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • Read as widely as possible.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I write the whole of my first draft by hand in A5 notebooks.

By Mari Strachan: