Monday, March 21, 2011

The Winter Reading List- The Wrap Up

As a graduating class, we decided to have Rebecca Brown as the master of ceremony during our commencement. During my time at Goddard College I never spent much time getting to know Rebecca, but over the course the program I became a bit of a wallflower groupie. What's a wallflower groupie? Good question. Of course, I was drawn to Rebecca. I don't know anyone who isn't. Even my parents, who came to my graduation ceremony and only knew her for her speech, were drawn to her. But during all my Goddard residencies, I went to any workshop she gave. I still think about her Coming Through Slaughter workshop. For those of you who don't know Michael Ondaatje's book, Coming Through Slaughter, perhaps you'll be inclined to put it on your reading list. I loved the book which is about Billy Bolden and the beginnings of jazz. The subject matter aside, Rebecca Brown was riveting. A short conversation with her, you know there's at least 10,000 books you have to read in order to see the world through proper eyes. The eyes of a reader, a writer and a thinker for our times. I digress.
At the graduation ceremony, she spoke of failure. Yeah, failure. She dared an entire class of graduating writers in front of their peers and families to go out into the world and fail. She used Herman Melville as an example. Moby Dick was an enigma in Melville's time that utter destroyed his career as a writer. I'm paraphrasing here, but in many ways, how true it was. Moby Dick. Can you believe it? We, as Americans, and I suspect we as writers the world over hold that book in incredibly high regard. I hold it in high regard. Why? Because I read it. And reading it, the tactile motion of rolling my eyes over the text and turning the pages really was a wonderful thing. I read it slowly, how could I not? It's dense. It's strange. I was right there with Ishmael, and Stubbs, and Starbuck and of course, Captain Ahab. I tell you this, it was a very rewarding process. There are classes and professors and literary criticism the planet over that will tell you the worth of this text. So, I'll spare you that. Suffice it to say, it was well worth putting the book on my list and reading it. I don't know how influential the book will be on my writing style, not yet anyway. As far as Rebecca's call to arms, her call to failure, I have no exact response. I'm still evolving as a writer, as I hope all of you are doing too. I'm also developing, constantly, as a reader.
Of all the books on my winter reading list, I read them all.
Murakami? The three that I read this season are three of the eleven of his novels I've read over the years. I love that his stories develop the way they do, the insights into the Tokyo psyche are intense. It makes me think about the American psyche, if that makes any sense. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, for instance, has so many stories from Japan's Manchurian campaign in WWII to the mystics seeking refuge in dried up wells and as outlandish as it all is, it makes sense in the confines of the story. Dance Dance Dance made me appreciate the narrative of an entire portfolio of work. I love that Murakami will often times have a detached middle-aged man, a teenage girl as a guide through the supernatural, the famous figures and an object of desire who vanishes. Startling, yes. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World has a similar dual storyline. The higher praises of Murakami's work: you can learn to cook great meals just by following the recipes of the narrator as he cooks dinner. His work proves to be an excellent primer into music: classical, American Jazz, Blues and Pop. What I really gain from these novels is a sense of space and place. After some time with these novels you know the streets of Harajuku and hidden nooks of Sapporo as if you lived there your whole life.
He's very attracted to islands of the Mediterranean: Greece, Malta and Crete.
John McManus's book of short stories, Born on a Train? They're still with me. In my wanderings as a fiction editor at a literary magazine, I only wish that every short story I read feels like his stories do. It's great insight into the modern day south. He really has nailed the southern vernacular. He's got the child narrator down too. On top of the thematic aspects, John really is one hell of a writer. I am blessed to have studied under him at Goddard.
Selah Saterstrom's book, The Meat and Spirit Plan? Again, I'm blessed to have her in my life too. Her writing is so far away from anything I've ever read. Her work is lyrical, challenging and somehow simple in it's delivery. I found her words to haunt me days later, and of anything else, it's time for her to produce another book. I know she has the next installment of her canon. It will be a red letter day when I get my hands on it.
The reading list: all the selections I made were seasonally appropriate too, I think. The long nights and short gray days of Portland's winter really made reading necessary. Although most people do not have the benefit of unemployment, poverty and Portland as reading scenery, I did. It was a truly wonder way to pass the winter.

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