brattleboro literary festival: after

Brattleboro Literary Festival

More than 50 authors were loose on the streets of Brattleboro, Vermont, for the fun and successful Brattleboro Literary Festival! The Literary Death Match was hilarious–Adrian Todd Zuniga as host. Roxana Robinson read against Rigoberto Gonzales , while Pam Houston read … Continue reading

shakespeare days

The New York Times September 15, 2013

For a long, long time, I’ve wanted to read all of Shakespeare’s plays–all 38. In June I was re-reading one of my favorite books, The Writing Life, by Ellen Gilchrist. And in it, there’s a chapter about “The Shakespeare Group.” Ellen … Continue reading

who’s counting

I count how many books I read in a year, but I think I forgot to do that for 2010. So I just did: 50 books. About average for me.

Then I counted the number for 201134 books. Way down. I was afraid of this. Since starting to work for The Writing Life section of Hunger Mountain, I have tremendously less time to read.

As they say on the news, let me break it down for you:

Of those 34, 6 were rereads and 4 were debuts.

Of those 34,

    • 20 novels
    • 3 books on the craft of writing
    • 3 books of stories
    • 3 books of essays
    • 2 books of poetry
    • 2 books of nonfiction
    • 1 memoir

Anybody else count?

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.

summer reading

Summer Contrary is online with new fiction, essays, and poetry, as well as reviews of these books :

Poetry: Northerners by Seth Abramson

Essays: Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer and A Journey with Two Maps by Eaven Boland

Fiction: And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips, You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon, and The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen

Here’s the beginning of my review of The Bird Sisters:

When they were teenagers, Milly hoped to marry and have children, while Twiss hoped to stand on the Continental Divide and “to be the world’s most interesting spinster.” Rebecca Rasmussen’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters, opens at least half a century later with Milly and Twiss living together in the house where they grew up. Perhaps, as Twiss concludes, they just didn’t want those other things enough.

To read more…

jane’s passions

Jane Addams was a political activist who worked toward, and spoke out, for social justice, including women’s suffrage. I had heard of her but had no idea…

In  Jane Addams: Spirit in Action by Louise W. Knight, I discovered that Jane cofounded the NAACP and the ACLU, and that she was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

She was born in 1860 and lived until 1935. She was a writer and she loved books:

Is it the child who loves books who becomes a dreamer? Or is it the born dreamer who, inevitably, loves books? Whether cause or effect, books were Jane’s passion throughout her life. The day she died, she had a pile by her bedside she was reading.

Some of her favorite characters were Jo in Little Women and Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. She named Leo Tolstoy’s My Religion as “the book that changed her life.”

In a speech on the Pullman Strike in 1894, she “compared George Pullman with King Lear…” And “Need a Woman Over Fifty Feel Old” was the title of an editorial she published the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1914.

A biography of substance about a woman of substance. September 6th will be the 150th anniversary of her birth.

You Are Not Here

cover art: "Rooms by the Sea" by Edward Hopper

David Jauss is my adviser this semester at Vermont College. During the residency, each student creates a reading list, which the adviser must approve. The books on the list may change as writing issues come up, but it’s a place to start.

Both semesters I’ve included books by my adviser on my list. This seems like an opportunity not to be missed–to read a writer’s work and have a dialogue about it.

Before I arrived at Vermont College, I knew of David Jauss mostly from his craft essays in the AWP Chronicle. I had also read a story of his. For my first packet due on Saturday, August 7th, I read some more of his work.

I started with his poetry and loved almost every one of his poems in the collection, You Are Not Here.

From “Requiem”:

“…how many times

have I paused at the crossroads, then turned right

toward home, instead of left,

toward the darkening highway that leads to that nowhere

called everywhere…”

And from “You Are Not Here”:

“each morning I ask myself

where I won’t be today

or ever.”

not that I’m counting

One of my friends refers to me as “the scribe” because I like to write stuff down. And one of the things I write down is how many books I read a year. As my tower of unread books grows taller and spawns little towers, it’s a way to prove to myself that I am reading. It’s a way to measure progress.

Every year I tally up. My number was down for 2009–42. But it did include Infinite Jest.

Not that numbers are important. In fact, at the moment, I’m trying to slow my reading, pay more attention, see how they’re doing it.

In any event, here are my numbers for recent years:

2008: 51

2007: 50

2006: 48 (+ lots of random stories)

2005: 74

2004: 50

Two questions occur to me from looking at these numbers, both involving the word cut. One, if I can only read 40-50 books a year, does the book I’m holding in my hands make the cut? Two, what else can I cut out to make more time for reading?

Do you know how many books you read a year?

to be read

DSC00023The books that sit on Lynn Neary’s “shelf of constant reproach” are “the books I know I should have read…but haven’t.” She borrowed this term from Luis Clemons, who chooses which authors to interview for NPR’s Tell Me More, and who refers to the worthy titles that don’t make it as “the shelf of constant reproach.”

Emily, of Evening All Afternoon, would take issue with this view. “…the level of stress and sheepishness about even having a to-be-read stack is a little dismaying to me….should a person feel guilty about the number of books…waiting to be enjoyed? I feel strongly that we shouldn’t….”

Nevertheless I often feel, as piscivorous tweeted yesterday, that “a stack of books is following me about the house.” I have a book shelf full of books I’ve already bought that are waiting To Be Read (see photo). In my head is a list of books I feel I should have already read. Finally, I have books I want to reread. And new books are being published all the time.

Moonrat came up with a list of 100 books that she wanted/needed to read. She labeled it her: Project Fill-in-the-Gaps. Once the book is read, the ink changes from black to red. [list toward the bottom of her sidebar]

How to make sense of all these books? How do I decide what to read next? Infinite Jest had been on my to-be-read shelf for 13 years, but Infinite Summer persuaded me to dust it off and open it up. Recently I began adding how I chose the book I was reading to my Reading List page. I thought this might make me give the selection a little more thought. But other than my monthly writing group selections and review deadlines, it seems to be similar to the way I choose what to write about–at that moment it’s just what gathers enough weight to cause me to reach for it.

And you?

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how do you record?

In 1999, I started keeping a list of the books I read on an old computer program called Sidekick, which was amazing because you could create cardfiles and name the categories exactly what you wanted to. As the years went by, they did not update the program.  It became more and more unstable.

So two years ago, I managed to import all outlook michael cunninghammy data into a separate contacts file in MS Outlook. Each book is a separate contact, and hopefully on the fourth line you can see that this card is filed as Cunningham, Michael–author’s last name. There’s also a nice place to make notes, although this one is blank at the moment. Sometimes in the notes area, I will add if I borrowed the book from someone or if I gave it away or why I chose it to read.

The categories don’t match up exactly.

Company=genre (novel, stories)

Job title=title

Business=year it was published

Home=year (or years) I read the book. This is an older entry, where I actually wrote out july. These days, I use 01 for January because it offers nice possibilities for sorting.

Callback=Not seen here because this is an older card, but where it says Business Fax, I now use callback, which = do I want to read this book again. And here I have 3 choices: yes, no, maybe.

I can see in two seconds if I’ve read a book before.

Last summer I added a card for each of  the other books on my shelves that I’d already read.

One of the recent comments: “I keep a tiny journal of all the books I read each year and the page numbers and the dates I read them.”

In a separate Note in Outlook, I also keep track of yearly totals. Do you keep track of the books you read? If so, what do you record and how?

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summer reading II: story collections

IMG_0951With the intention of reading a story a night, a reader asked yesterday about story collections. I love that idea. No brand new collections to suggest, I’m afraid, but here are three great oldies:

Women & Fiction, edited by Susan Cahill, published in 1975. “Short stories by and about women.” Doris Lessing’s “To Room 19,” Jean Stubbs’ “Cousin Lewis,” Virginia Woolf’s “The New Dress,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” Carson McCuller’s “Wunderkind”….Try to avoid the very pink 2002 Signet Classic edition.

You’ve Got to Read This, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, published in 1994. “Contemporary American writers introduce stories that held them in awe.” There’s a great story in here by Paul Bowles, “A Distant Episode,” chosen by John L’Heureux. Also, Annie Dillard chooses a James Agee story. Bobbie Ann Mason chooses a Tim O’Brien story. Lorrie Moore chooses a John Updike story….This is a good, solid book.

The Story Behind the Story, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett, published in 2004. “26 stories by contemporary writers and how they work.” I was fascinated by Stephen Dobyns’ explanation of how he wrote his story, “Part of the Story.” He was inspired by Raymond Carver’s method. “…the first sentence had come into his mind and he just followed it.” Also, stories by Margot Livesey, Charles Baxter, Andrea Barrett, Robert Boswell….

Others worth mentioning:

  1. Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike
  2. Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie

Then there’s The New Yorker and One Story.

As far as the initial question, I assumed anthologies, but here are two new single author collections:IMG_0978

  1. My Father’s Tears by John Updike, out today and reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.
  2. Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson, out June 9th. Loved her collection, Who Do You Love. Also reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.

Of the single author collections I’ve read in the last couple of years, I would recommend:

  1. Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill
  2. Last Night by James Salter
  3. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  4. Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti

So many good stories, apparently I could go on and on…

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summer reading

IMG_0950June 1st, although not officially summer, is in my mind, which makes it time for summer reading!

My recommendations:

  1. The Earth Hums in B Flat (novel) by Mari Strachan. This is out now. I just read it….See my review forthcoming in July in the summer issue of Contrary Magazine!
  2. The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (memoir) by Rachel Cusk. This is out now and is on my shelf waiting to be read. It’s reviewed in the NYT book review below.
  3. The Angels Game (novel) by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This will be out on June 16th. I loved Shadow of the Wind. It’s reviewed in the WSJ book review below.
  4. That Old Cape Magic (novel) by Richard Russo. This will be out August 4th. I loved Bridge of Sighs. Also reviewed in the WSJ book review below.
  5. South of Broad (novel) by Pat Conroy. This will be out August 11th. I loved Prince of Tides and Beach Music. Also reviewed in the WSJ book review below.
  6. Pick a classic you haven’t read off the summer reading table at your local bookstore!

IMG_0987Other lists:

Please share any recommendations you have. Happy Summer and Happy Reading!

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I want something good to read

IMG_2003How many times have you thought this or said this?

When I say it, I actually don’t mean good; I mean that will take my breath away. That will make me want to read it again. So I say this, I’m guessing, three or four times a year. I’m not the only one. I found a blog post last week that actually illustrated the problem.

When I read book after book and they’re all just okay or not good at all and I long for a book where I’m rereading lines over and over again or reading as slowly as possible, then I either resort to one of my all-time favorite books or to a classic–Jane Austin, Faulkner, Dickens, Fitzgerald.

Which takes me to the question of how I choose what book to read next anyway. Because if I chose better, perhaps I would never come to… I want something good to read.

I discovered another blog post last week (yes, guilty of too much time on the internet) where the writer/reader decided to become more intentional about choosing what to read. She came up with specific criteria about what constituted a good book. The problem, of course, with this approach is that you can’t know whether the book meets these criteria until you read it.

Taking a look at how I chose what I’ve read lately:

Don’t Cry-writing group pick (one a month)

Stop-Time-recommended by a writer for its form

Out Stealing Horses-recommended by an independent book store owner when I asked “if you could recommend one book in your store, what would it be?”

Tender is the Night-never read it before and a classic about a marriage (my novel-in-progress is about a marriage)

How do you choose what to read next?

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before and after

img_17252Before and After by Rosellen Brown was published in 1992.  I read it in August of 2006 and gave it to everyone I knew for Christmas.  It’s about a marriage and a family. It’s narrated in alternating chapters primarily by the husband and wife, Ben and Carolyn, and also by one of the children, Judith.

You won’t be able to put it down.  And be sure to notice how the narrative is strung along this thing that happens, but the story–what it’s about–is the relationship between the members of the family, in particular the husband and the wife.

At the beginning of the novel, the wife’s voice, although in the past tense, is more immediate to the action.  She’s at work and then washing her hands at the sink.  We live through the events with her.  The husband’s voice, on the other hand, is distant to what happened, more reflective, beginning in the present tense, speaking to us from some future time:  “I’m going to talk about that day…I’m coming toward it slowly. I can’t rush up on the seam between before and after. (Not seam, no way. Excuse me.  Chasm.)”

Just discovered it was made into a film in 1996, starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson.

the dawning of a new day

Sunrise Miami Beach.  The dawning of a new day.img_1371 

On the front page of yesterday’s New York Times was the headline, 

From Books, New President Found Voice.”

In case you missed it, here are some of the highlights.  Michiko Kakutani wrote that Mr. Obama’s  “appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading” have shaped his “sense of who he is.”

She also commented on Mr. Obama’s storytelling ability as evidenced in Dreams From My Father, and I agree with this.  I listened to Mr. Obama read his autobiography on a recent car trip.  But my favorite example of his storytelling abilities is listening and watching him tell the story of the power of one voice (fired up and ready to go). 

Kakutani said that Mr. Obama took what she called “the magpie approach to reading,” which she defined as ruminating upon writers’ ideas and picking and choosing those that flesh out his vision of the world or open promising new avenues of inquiry.”

Then she issued, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the following warning to people who count their books at the end of the year, competing with others or themselves (50 for me for 2008):  Mr. Bush “tended to race through books in competitions with Karl Rove,” who apparently beat the President in 2006, by 110 books to 95.  Yikes.  We know who we are.

Here’s what she called “A Reading List that Shaped a President”: img_1356

  • The Bible
  • Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch
  • Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Ghandhi’s autobiography
  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
  • Lincoln’s collected writings
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  • Works of Reinhold Niebuhr
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Of these, I’ve read The Bible, The Golden Notebook, Song of Solomon, Gilead, and some of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Kakutani concluded the article by making comparisons between Lincoln and Obama.  She quoted Fred Kaplan on Lincoln:  “He became what his language made him.”  Obama appears to be on the same track.  America and the world have a lot to look forward to.

the last day of October

“The weather was unusually warm for the last day of October.  We didn’t even need jackets.  The wind was growing stronger, and Jem said it might be raining before we got home.  There was no moon.”  To Kill A Mockingbird  by Harper Lee

I read it in school.  I read it again in June of 2006.  I just finished listening to it on CD read by Sissy Spacek.  I think Sissy Spacek is Scout.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  I listened to it in my car, and on more than one occasion, I would sit there listening even after arriving at my destination.  It is that good.  Listening to it made me want to read it again.