Tools

Reading has been a bit sketchy lately for me. For the first time in a very long time, I abandoned three books in a row only 30 pages in. The books seemed somehow less than professional, like when you go into a restaurant and it smells weird and no one talks to you and you know you’re not in good hands.

The book that got me out of this was…The Revenant? I am not sure how this is even possible. The movie in no way appealed to me, it belongs to that genre I like to call “sweaty men movies”—not a favorite of mine—and I thought also that it was too scary. Yes, I am a fearful person.

But reading is a whole other ballgame, allowing me to dabble in truly terrifying things because I can stop when I need to. And so I started to read, and Lo and Behold, I found I was in good hands. Such good hands! There were people! A sense of place! And best of all, there were tools. Here’s another made up genre for you: tool books! From Little House in the Big Woods to Hatchet, there is something so incredibly satisfying about learning about other people’s tools and the clever ways they use them. The rifle in The Revenant was so lovingly described I wanted to hold it—I, who am not a gun person—and there were also profoundly compelling sharp-edged stones used to dig, and funnel traps to capture mice. It’s hard to know just looking at a book whether it will scratch this particular itch, but when you find one, oh! They are so good! Like The Golden Compass and the alethiometer! So many good tools!

Here’s where if we were back in the 2000s, I would ask you all to leave your favorite literary tools (or tool books?) in the comments, but blogging doesn’t work so much like that these days. But if you do think of one, consider saying so! I feel we could all benefit.

A Good Thing

Well, it’s been a while! A while that for me, at least, included a truly terrible summer, and an earthquake of my life, healthwise. However, yesterday in my email I got something truly lovely: a notice that my library was no longer going to charge fines for late books.

This is not (I swear) because I am a late returner. Or at least, it’s mostly not that. It’s just that, I guess, in my heart libraries are among the pure and wonderful things in this world, like a baby’s laugh or a puppy’s tummy. And it hadn’t occurred to me that somehow they might be about to become even better. But it happened!

Right now my local branch doesn’t allow browsing, because of this ongoing horror of a pandemic. But someday it will open again, and I will wander the shelves, and I will find something weird and wonderful that I never knew existed. This is what I imagine, and I just wanted to take a moment to say: Thank you, libraries. For all the excellent unexpected gifts.

A Book to Slake Your Thirst

I have to get the terrible title out of the way first, because…anything that turns you away from this book is to be vanquished. The book is amazing: wonderful and moving and humane. And the title: boo. OK, done.

Now: if you haven’t read Joan Silber before, that is sad, because she is fantastic. You open one of her books and a voice greets you, speaks to you, and you are there in another world with another human, as though you have passed through a veil and all is transformed.

I had just read…something else, I can’t even remember what, something that was a little sticky and cloying and complicated. Not bad, just…not welcoming.

But opening the first page was like drinking cool water from a well. I was in the other world. I was hearing about someone’s heart. And mind. And soul.

Oh my god this book is good.

Go. Enjoy.

The Dreaded Question

Full disclosure here: I am querying agents for a novel I am writing, and overall, I feel the less said about this the better. It only makes me alternately hyped up or sad, and neither feeling is really a pond I’m up for swimming in right now. The process is complex and requires attention to tiny details (first 5 pages? 10? 20? 2 Chapters? Three? Does that include the prologue?). It does helpfully remind me though that the best part of writing is … writing. That’s where the joy, though sometimes hard to find, invariably comes.

At any rate, on one of many online forms that asked for length, bio, genre etc, this question jumped out and mugged me:

Who is your favorite fictional character from a book or a movie?

No wrong answers, it promised.

And I mean…yikes. I was flummoxed, fully and completely. First thought: Max, from Where the Wild Things Are.

Except I recognized this more as an aspirational thing, that is, I would like to be more like Max (or, please God, Lynda Barry’s Poodle With a Mohawk), but does that mean favorite?

I tried again. But somehow, when I read a book, I don’t come away with “Oh, how I loved that character!” but more like “Oh, how I loved that book.” It’s the whole world they live in, the transportation to another realm.

Not to mention, of course, that I am putting this onto a form in which I am asking someone, essentially: Please love me and my work. Which is a special and weird kind of pressure.

Jane Austen characters come to mind, because they are so wonderful, but also…I don’t know, that seems crazy? Ditto Levin from Anna Karenina (too show-offy, but I do love him, as I do Pierre). Also: previous centuries seem like they might send, er, the wrong message. And I truly love Karenin as well, one of the painful great characters of literature. Except is he really my favorite? Cue concerns again about wrong century, book, person, life.

I promise I read a lot of contemporary fiction too, but…what am I to say? I loved Gabe in Lucky Us by Joan Silber (read it! It’s so good!) but that felt too inside baseball, and…ugh. Saying anything at all began to feel more and more fraught.

We are such a strange and confusing culture, so focused on trying to know one another and expose ourselves, when trying to do so ends up feeling, inevitably, partial and false. Anyway, I ended up, in a spasm of confused anxiety, saying Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. Whom I love, truly. And I forgot to add her last name. And I am, as ever, suffused with regrets and confusion.

As is the way with weird and terrible experiences, I will now try to share this question with you guys: Do you, any of you, have a favorite character in fiction? No wrong answers, I promise (ha ha ha sob).

The Troublesome Book Readers

I am, in some ways, a persnickety reader. Not in matters of “taste,” exactly. I like high, low, and in-between. But there are certain things that I take irritable, irrational umbrage at, and in particular: when the narrator is a reader. And not just a reader but a loudly proclaimed lover of Books and Reading and Literature. The descriptive phrase, “She always had her nose in a book,” type of thing.

I am annoyed by my own annoyance in this. Of course the narrator is a reader; we are all readers here, in all likelihood: the writer, the reader, the characters. Even so, there is something about a writer writing rhapsodically and approvingly about a character’s curling up with a book, or the close and personal relationship a character has with other fictional characters. It just makes me say, “No!” Not that I stop reading exactly. I very rarely stop reading altogether, which is a post for another time. But I rebel, secretly, and feel pandered to, and just generally pissed off.

The writer is instantaneously transformed into Mary Bennet for me, like so (this is stolen from here, as for inexplicable reasons all Jane Austen has fled my room): “Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures. They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But I confess they would have no charms for me. I should infinitely prefer a book.

That self-congratulatory air of pleasure with oneself. How did Jane Austen get it so exactly and painfully? But that’s it, that is the person who appears before me.

But—and here’s (part of) the problem: having this bias is definitely as annoying, at least, as self-satisfiedly writing a character with the problem. My only apology/defense is that at least I am not fictional, and have a degree of self-awareness about it all.

The real question I have is: does this bug anyone else?