Reading in (Later, Grayer) Autumn

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: my desire for reading grows as the days get shorter. It’s dark now before 5, and my chilled soul gets joyous as I turn the heat down, curl up in my armchair with coffee and a book and maybe some jazz on the tape player.

If this sounds idyllic and perfect to you, please temper your expectations with the knowledge that I only reach this hallowed state once every few days. These days are busy, busy! I’m lucky enough to adore my job, but it does take a lot out of me. Not to mention the necessity of getting a second job for the extra holiday cash and the rehearsals and concerts I’m singing in. Thanksgiving was a welcome break and calm before the storm of December time. So I am attempting to slice out little places to write and read and keep up the care of myself.

Here’s what I’m reading right now:

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThis is a second attempt for me, which is in itself odd– usually I am of the opinion (looking at the 500+ books on my to-be-read list) that if a book doesn’t enchant me, it’s probably worth putting down for good. In this case, I think I just ran out of time to return the library copy and gave up. I’m trying again because I find Thomas Cromwell’s character intriguing (a cynic, a politician, a heartbroken moralist?) and because the world of Tudor England is so strikingly painted in such detail. The book follows Cromwell, an advisor to first Cardinal Wolsey and then King Henry VIII as Henry deliberates divorcing his first wife, Katherine, and marrying Anne Boleyn. Obviously, as with most historical fiction about well-known figures, we know what will happen, but I’m drawn into the chess-like negotiations of politics nonetheless. In terms of brutal, murderous royal intrigues, I am more a fan of this than, say, Game of Thrones…. (there are no dragons yet, though). One of the things I appreciate about a long novel is that I have to accept that I’ll be living with the book for awhile, and robbed of the immediate drive to finish the book, I instead enjoy picking it up again and again.

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The All of It, by Jeannette Haien

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I finished this odd little book today. I found it on some list of “underappreciated favorites” and decided it was intriguing. The book takes place in Ireland, with a widow, Enda, who still remembers the countryside before cars took over, telling her story to her priest. The essence of her story is that her husband, Kevin, who has just died, was the other party to a secret that’s never been shared. Once the secret is revealed, the book continues to waft through Enda’s homey way of speaking her memories. That part was lovely. What wasn’t quite lovely was the priest, who is on the edge of a conniption every other second and who has some unresolved issues which eventually get worked out through fishing. Or maybe they don’t get worked out through fishing. I don’t think I understand fishing. Anyway, I’m not going to give away what the secret was or what happens with the fishing. This book is worth reading if you want that magical feel of someone leaning in and telling you a story.

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Marina Keegan’s Story “Cold Pastoral.”

 Read it here in The New Yorker.

I found this devastatingly close to home, from the millenial classic of an undefined relationship, to the confusion of loss and the instructions on how one is supposed to grieve, to the fear of rejection and the sinking knowledge of oneself in another’s eyes. I know that some may say Keegan’s plaudits as a rising talent have been unduly magnified by her tragic death; this is the story that convinced me most of her ungodly genius. She is, I’ve concluded, not overrated. I am sad once again that she has gone. My generation needed her light.

Ada Limón – Bright Dead Things

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And I’m continuing to savor bits of Ada Limón’s book as I go through these days. My favorite so far is “State Bird,” which I’m adding to the “Love” section of my poetry class this spring.

If you were a state, I’d be that state’s bird

What could capture devotion more purely?

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Reading in Autumn

It’s late autumn now, and Rhode Island got its first snowfall last night. So it’s time for more reading, for longer stretches of pages and replacing the lightbulbs in the lamps by my reading chairs as they fizzle late at night. My reading always gets darker and more contemplative when the nights get longer, and the following grouping of books is moody and delicious.

Ada Limón – Bright Dead Things

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I picked up this book of poetry as a treat for myself at my local bookstore. I’ve been a fan of Ada Limón for a little while and decided to invest in her work. With the book in my hands I can trace the journey that goes through groups of her poems (Part I, in which I’m immersed now, is about her move to the Kentucky countryside). It’s interesting to think about how if my poems are ever published in a book, they might be grouped according to the story of life running through the background of the time in which I wrote them.
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Hannah Kent – Burial Rites

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This book is a true historical fiction gem; I feel the Icelandic chill in the air as I read, and I’m learning about life on a farm; making hay, sleeping in a room with householders and servants and farmhands alike with hay poking through the gaps in the wooden rafters. The story follows Agnes Magnusdottir, a real woman who was condemnded to death in Iceland in the 1820s. She’s a fascinating tangle of darkness, and the book is an easy, compelling read which makes me think about goodness, darkness, and the desperate acts of the powerless.
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Umberto Eco – Six Walks in the Fictional Woods

This one’s for the true literature nerds out there. Eco originally delivered these chapters as lectures. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a diagram this much. I find that I’m agreeing with him almost all the time — the interaction between author, text, and reader always intrigues me, especially because I’m attempting to teach kids to write with an audience in mind and read perceptively. Recommended reading for any English teacher out there.

I guess I should take more walks in the woods this fall, and spend more time out on my balcony watching the snow fall while wrapped in blankets. Tell me your wintry book lists!

Summer Reading Shelf

The most fun (and time-consuming) part of setting up my new apartment was unpacking about 380 books! I decided on a smaller to-be-read shelf for the new space, accompanied by a lovely photo of me and my dashing friend Sam.


Left to right:

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx
Treeborne, by Caleb Johnson
The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy
The Farming of Bones, by Edwidge Danticat
A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle (one I re-read every summer)
Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel (another favorite to re-read)
Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris
Year of Wonders, by Gwendolyn Brooks
The Steady Running of the Hour, by Justin Go
The River Wife, by Jonis Agee
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Summer is a fantastic time to read, and I have found myself wanting to read multiple books at once– one stays on my bedside table, one is in my school bag or the passenger seat of my car so that I can dine al fresco or take a break from coffee shop writing to read a few pages. Is there anything better than a book and a beer in the sun?

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I’ve just started Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, and I’m drawn in by the momentum of his prose. Here’s an example:

To pitch here is to live. People pitch their kids into good schools, pitch offers on houses they can’t afford, and when they’re caught in the arms of the wrong eprson, pitch unlikely explanations. Hospitals pitch birthing centers, daycares pitch love, high schools pitch success . . . car dealerships pitch luxury, counselors self-esteem, masseuses happy endings, cemeteries eternal rest. . . It’s endless, the pitching– endless, exhilarating, soul-sucking, and as unrelenting as death. As ordinary as morning sprinklers.

The book is, so far, about movie stars and love in the 1960s in a tiny corner of Cinque Terra, Italy, with a corollary plot in contemporary Hollywood. Anyone need a fun summer read? Shop your local indie bookstore

What are you reading? What should I add to my list this summer?

Adventure and Resilience

“I was to have one last night in the hills: another starry one, as you will hear, but with a moist hush to the air that was like something at full draw– a breath, an arrow.” –Peace Like a River, Leif Enger

I’ve always been drawn to stories of adventure– big weather, big stories. Voyages by ship or horseback are grand. So are gunfights and swordfights and fights against fear and loneliness. I decided to start my year off by reading about what the tough do when the going gets tough.

Current Reading

Winter’s Bone
Daniel Woodrell 

This book was handed to me on Christmas Eve with the directive, “drop everything and read this.” I didn’t, but the stack of books on my nightstand suddenly seemed less entrancing, so I did pick it up the next day. What a stunning book. Ree, a 16-year-old member of a clannish and lawless Ozark family, must find her fugitive father in order to keep the house he has put up as his bond. She’s tough and sensitive at the same time– loving, determined to be on the side of righteousness, yet unafraid of the darkness that surrounds her.

Peace Like a River
Leif Enger

I first read this book over Christmas vacation of my senior year of college. It was a hard time for me. I had mono, I was struggling to finish up my fall semester papers to hand in late, I was heartsick. That year was about to get far more difficult for me. I credit this book with my return to reading for joy and love. I had been reading only for work– I needed to return to true literary elation. This book did that.

The story is one that will hook you immediately– Reuben, an 11 year old asthmatic daydreamer of a narrative, witnesses his brother commit a double murder out of a sense of nobility. Then brother Davy goes on the lam, and the loyal family (including the prodigious sister Swede, a writer of epic cowboy ballad poetry) follows him off into the West in an Airstream trailer, apparently following the will of God and the miraculous leading of their father, a school janitor who wrestles angels. It is a journey towards hope and a complicated understanding of good and evil, and towards a fateful reckoning.

Past Favorites:

The Bones of Paradise, by Jonis Agee ~ A sprawling family saga set in the sand hills of Nebraska in the years after Wounded Knee. Beautifully written, hauntingly vengeful.

The North Water, by Ian McGuire ~ Takes naturalism to a dark conclusion in a world of whaling ships and ice and murder.

To The Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey ~ Explorers in Alaska encounter danger and a world of Native myths and power. Split perspective between explorer husband and homesteading wife.

Next on My List in Adventure and Historical Fiction: 

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles
Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Leif Enger (Separate from Peace Like a River and quite different. I think I would read anything Enger ever writes.)
The Plover, by Brian Doyle (sequel to the stunning Mink River, but this one’s about a boat.)

What are your favorite adventurous books? What do you think I should read next?