Tag: books

Help–need books

I’m trapped in the house with feverish people. Feverish is better than the other possibilities. Zombies, for example. Or vampires. Or exceptionally grumpy folks.

Still, time is ticking by slowly. Lots of napping, lots of quiet. And me, stuck without anything good to read.

That’s not totally true. I have lots of good books here, but nothing new. It used to be that I’d reread Stephen King’s The Stand whenever I was sick, and then watch The Thing. I found it comforting (I’m not dying of an lethal virus! I don’t have aliens eating their way out of me!).

Ever since the great book purge we undertook a few years ago, I haven’t been able to find The Stand. It’s also not really what I’m in the mood for. Jon just finished reading a book about the influenza epidemic of 1918. Nope, that one’s not right either. No flu for now.

Help me out. Tell me what you’re reading, what you’ve read, what you love so much you almost want to tattoo it on your wrist. I’m making a library list, and I could use some suggestions.

A brief word on truth in fiction

When I was in my early thirties, I had to have a wisdom tooth pulled. (Short dental story here, skip this paragraph if such things make you queasy.) I chose to have it done under local, because it was cheaper, because I had a thing about being knocked out. The oral surgeon put in the anesthetic, waited a bit, and then tried to pull. Pain, lots of pain. I made him stop. He got mad. He told me, eventually, that I didn’t actually know what pain was, that what I felt was pressure.

As I said, I was in my thirties. I’d already had one baby. I’d lived my life. I had a pretty good idea what the difference between pain and pressure was. It didn’t fit with his plan for my immediate future though, and for his own. That plan required a quick extraction so he could go on with his day, so he chose to deny that my pain existed.

Situations over YA books and whether teens should be allowed to read them often fall along those general lines. There’s often an insistence that a book shows something “obscene,” when what it actually shows is a life. Were we to all drop our facades for a moment, tell our real life stories, chances are that most would have an element or two (or fifteen), that someone, somewhere, would label obscene. That someone, somewhere, would insist we should keep hidden away.

So we do. We teach ourselves to hide pieces of ourselves. By refusing to acknowledge the realities of the world around us, we teach our kids to hide pieces of themselves.

Other people may feel pain, or fear, or have lives completely unlike one’s own. Don’t invalidate them by insisting they don’t exist, or worse, by insisting that their existence should be covered up by shiny happy stories. Trust me, finding oneself in a book when one is struggling is a powerful thing, sometimes a lifesaving thing.

And those kids who aren’t struggling, who happen to read a book about a life unlike their shiny and happy one? Odds are it doesn’t warp them, but teaches them empathy, and just maybe makes the world a better place.

I haven’t read Eleanor And Park, though the current fuss over it has certainly bumped it higher on my reading list. I think Book Riot gets it right here, as does the NPR link embedded there. Read them both. They have important things to say.

Familiar faces

(I wrote the following post for a friend who wanted to hear this story.)

Working on novels is very different than working on short stories. (For me–I’m compelled to add that qualifier, always, because I don’t claim to know how anyone else’s head works.) The sheer volume of time I spend with the characters means my relationship to them is stronger, more complicated. There were times with The Lost that I felt as though my main characters were with me all the time. In the backseat of the car, for example, like three troublesome kids.

Which is all fine and good. The scary thing is when they cross that line between imaginary and flesh and blood.

A few years back, around winter holiday time, I went to a chain bookstore. I got in line for the register, not paying much attention, as usual. When it was almost my turn I looked up.


It’s one thing to write a monster–a man whose obsessive desires and sense of privilege justify a range of cruelty. It’s quite another thing to have him sell you a book.

I crossed my fingers that I’d get the nice college woman instead. I didn’t. I looked very carefully at the man’s name tag when I came to the register. It wasn’t the name I’d written. He was just a guy selling books, a bored one at that, but the tilt of his head, his features, his attitude…it was him. I scooted out of the store. It’s not as though you can say to stranger in a bookstore, hey, do you carry a knife, by any chance?

I saw him one other time. Never again after that. I hadn’t thought about him in a long time. Not until a couple months back, when I ran into Juno Stuart in the grocery store.

Now, I can’t tell you much about who bookstore guy reminds me of, because that gives away some things in Wren. Juno isn’t such a secret. She’s driven, and charismatic, and intensely physical. If someone were going to make the leap from imagination to tangible form, it would be Juno.

And apparently she likes trail mix.

I’m tall for a woman. I can’t easily hide in a small grocery store. If I could have, I would have followed her the whole time. As it was, I watched her check out trail mix while I pretended to be checking out tortilla chips instead of her. She acted like she didn’t care. Like Juno would have acted.

And that was it. She was there, she bought her trail mix, she was gone.

That’s the way novels go. They pull you in to the world as you write, and it’s hard to walk away from it. It’s very much like reading as a kid–that sense that if you just look hard enough you’ll find your way through the wardrobe (if only you could find a wardrobe). Some little piece of your mind devotes itself to that search, always tuned outward, like SETI, and every now and then it goes bing. There’s always an explanation–in a college town you see so many people come and go that you can spot just about anyone–but it’s fun to feel that thrill.

Portrait of the reader as an older woman

Okay, enough existential angst for the week. Let’s talk about something more interesting.

(And what’s really interesting, and more than a little weird, is that everywhere I go this week the number 42 keeps turning up. It also happens to be my age this year, and, as everyone should know, the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Why 42? What does it mean!? But that’s just a little aside.)

What kind of reader are you? Forget all about this writing business for a moment. It may well be that there are writers who are born fully formed, and who write their masterpieces never having read a complete book in their lives, but I kind of doubt it. I was a reader long before I was a writer.

As a reader, I dabble in a little of everything. There are categories I don’t choose to read in, but I’m also willing to give most anything a try. I’m drawn to character over plot, and to complicated characters more than simply appealing ones. Bittersweet endings interest me more than straight-up happily ever after, because I can buy the happy much more easily if it comes with the sad.

I read on paper when reading for pleasure. I do not own an ereader. If I lived somewhere where downloading a book didn’t require either the patience of a saint or a trip in the car, then I might be more likely to go with electronics, but I don’t. I’m also comforted by the shape and feel of physical books. I relate to them differently than I do to words on a screen. Part of that may also be a function of using a computer to write. A document on a screen feels like work rather than fun.

As the occupant of a very small house, I may need to rethink that idea at some point. In the meantime, I sleep with piles of books by my bed, and by the couch, and anywhere else I might relax.

I read more fiction than nonfiction. I read more adult fiction than children’s or YA. If I’m working on a novel, I avoid reading in the same genre because it muddies the waters for me. My eyes are tired much of the time, so my love of small paperbacks has diminished. If I like an author, I’ll try their stuff across any genre they choose to write in. I reread everything I love, and also some things I only like. I rarely read things when they’re first released, and I almost never look at reviews until after I’ve read something.

Oh, and I have a headlamp for reading at night.

Who are you as a reader?

Two books

Today, a couple of suggestions. No particular reason, other than I’ve been thinking about these books lately.

First, When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. Totally, absolutely wonderful book that falls somewhere in the young YA category, I would guess. Don’t let that stop you if you fall outside of that age range. I suspect I would have loved it even if I hadn’t loved A Wrinkle in Time as a kid, but that was icing on the cake. A warm, loving, curious, intelligent book about being a kid, and friends, and time travel.

Second, China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh. Have I mentioned that I’m a big fan of rereading books? Like at least a quarter of my reading is stuff I’ve read before? This is one of those books I go back to, over and over. I first read it because my husband was assigned it for a class on utopias and dystopias (about a thousand years ago), and it was kicking around the house, and I was bored. It’s now one of my favorite books. It’s the kind of science fiction I want to press into someone’s hand every time they tell me they don’t read science fiction. A believable future, peopled by people, not action heroes, just people. I think this book reads much like watching a dragonfly shed its nymphal skin and emerge as a winged adult–it is not for the impatient but it is nothing short of miraculous.

A confession

I read too quickly.

I always have. I tend to wolf books down. It’s not a particularly good way to read, just as it isn’t a healthy way to eat. You lose things, important things.

As with any other lifelong trait, I’ve learned to compensate. I often read books several times in a row. The first time deals with the itch of needing to know what happens. The second allows me to absorb the details I may have sped right past. The third time…the third time is entirely for pleasure. If I go back for a third read, that’s a laze on the couch and revel in the words read.

My eyes are getting old along with the rest of me. I can’t read as quickly as I used to, and I have less time to read than I used to, and my reading habits are changing. I still read at a good clip if it’s not just before bed. More and more often though, I’m reading a book just once.

I suspect glasses would change things back for me. I don’t have any. I’ve been to an eye doctor exactly once, and I managed to pass out during the exam, and that makes me both embarrassed and hesitant to go back. But I’d like to be able to read too quickly again. I’d like to have those diligent second and blissful third reads. Even if it isn’t the best way to read, it still feels like the way I read.

A story, a picture

Late summer, 2010. Hiking in the White Mountains with Jon. No kids, just us, on a vacation paid for by his work in honor of ten years of service. On the way back down, we stop by a little waterfall.

My old boots don’t quite fit. They never have; they never fit either of us quite right, but I’m lazy about my footwear, so I wear them with two pairs of wool socks. This day, though, they’re not feeling kind to my feet. I take them off, stick my feet in the water until they are numb. Pull them out, and they are reborn. That’s the way cold streams are when you’re hiking: holy.

I hate having my picture taken, avoid it like the plague. This trip, I allow a few. They’re for the kids, waiting at home for us. I once read an essay by a woman who wished her mother had allowed more pictures of herself, because after she was gone, the woman had so few images of her. So, sometimes I let the pictures happen.

This picture, though, this one I didn’t notice, because Jon was waiting for me back on the rocks. It’s one of my favorites–I prefer to play second fiddle to a waterfall.

It’s also going to live on the About Me page from now on.