Category: Reading

Quotes from “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke

“Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for.”

“But if we nevertheless endure and take this love upon us as burden and apprenticeship, instead of losing ourselves in the whole easy and frivolous game behind which people have hidden from the solemnity of their being, — then a small advance and a lightening will perhaps be perceptible to those who come long after us.”

“If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys.”

“People have already had to rethink so many concepts of motion; and they will also gradually come to realize that what we call fate does not come into us from the outside, but emerges from us.”

“This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.”

“If we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth.”

“Do you remember how that life yearned out of childhood toward the ‘great thing’? I see that it is now yearning forth beyond the great thing toward the greater one. That is why it does not cease to be difficult, but that is also why it will not cease to grow.”

“So you mustn’t be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloudshadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.”

A Different Way of Reading

There are so many online lit mags now that sometimes I wonder if anyone is reading them. It’s hard enough to keep up with reading print lit mags and new novels.

The best print journals, like Tin House and Ploughshares, have loyal subscribers who presumably read most or all of the content in each issue. However, I have a hard time believing that people read online journals in the same way. Perhaps the very best online journals like Word Riot and PANK do have regular readers. But is anyone actually reading every issue of some tiny, random lit mag?

This might seem discouraging, but it is not intended to be. I often read random pieces of writing in online mags I’ve never heard of. But the way I come across these stories is not by reading every single issue of a journal. Instead, I visit these journals when they have published the work of a particular writer I’m interested in.

Usually, if I like a writer’s work, I will search for that person online to read more of their stories. There will be several links on the first two pages of the search that lead to examples of their work. Tech-savvy writers make this even easier by having a page on their website where you can click through all their stories in different online journals. If I really like someone, I don’t care where the work has been published. It’s not about the particular journal. In this sense, the journal really is acting as an online “home” for the story, a place where the story lives so that readers can find it through searching.

This is quite different from the way people read traditional print journals. With print, it’s a lot harder to find a bunch of one author’s stories in different journals all at once. Your only hope of doing that is by reading a published collection of stories.

I enjoy this new online literary ecosystem. It’s fun to click from one online journal to the next in the process of exploring one writer’s work. It feels a lot more free than reading print journals. It feels like there’s more to discover. It plays into the immediacy that we have come to expect in an online age.

My online reading style has also affected how I submit to journals. I aim for journals that get good Google results. Before submitting, I Google a few of their authors to see if the journal’s website appears in the first 1-2 pages of the search. If it does, then I consider it a “good” journal. If the piece doesn’t make it into a traditional print journal, it might as well live where people will actually be able to find it.

Quotes from the Memoirs of Berlioz

“I vowed as I left the Opera that I would be a musician come what might, despite father, mother, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and friends.”

“To the astonishment of everyone, [Cherubini] and servant pursued me round the table, knocking over stools and reading-desks in the vain effort to catch me, until at last I escaped, calling out with a laugh as I vanished: ‘You shall neither have me nor my name, and I shall soon come back and study Gluck’s scores again!'”

Dare Me Quotes

I deeply admire Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me, which I have now read three times. During each read, some of the same lyrical moments jumped out at me as particularly excellent:

“…Mr. Feck, who gives her reams of pink fluttery hall passes from his desk drawer…” (26)

“I listen endlessly to Emily’s squeaking voice, the way it sputters and pipes and dances lightfoot and never, ever says anything at all.” (28)

“I feel so stupid with my own stupid fucking phone, with the little skins I have for it–hot pink, butterflied, leopard skin–and how it never leaves my crimped palm, a live thing that, it seems now, beats instead of my heart.” (38)

“For a moment, my fingers touch her hard back, which shudders like a bird’s. Touching it is like touching them, their beauty.” (108)

A Year of Reading

Brief thoughts on some of the books I read this year:

Dare Me by Megan Abbott (2013)

dare me

I had the fortune to discover this author this year.  Abbott does crime fiction with a literary flair.  Her novels are gorgeously written, dark, and suspenseful.  In Dare Me, a cheerleader is caught between loyalties–a new coach or her best friend.  It was great to see a book that dealt with the darkness of teenage girls, especially pretty ones, who are often thought to be as shiny on the inside as they are on the outside.

The End of Everything by Megan Abbott (2011)

Narrated by a child whose friend is kidnapped, the real excitement occurs when the narrator takes investigation into her own hands.  The novel is nicely written and suspenseful.  It also explores the subjectivity of memory.

Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott (2009)

Darkness to the max: A girl kills her roommates and transports their bodies in a travel trunk.

The Fever by Megan Abbottfever (2014)

I saw the author at a book event for her latest novel, The Fever.  She had a great story about how she chose the cover for the book (it’s rare for an author to have power over this).  It is a rotated image of a girl levitating, which somehow makes it even more terrifying. This was an pleasantly creepy novel about an outbreak of mass psychogenic illness.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (1998)

I am seriously obsessed with this book and read it almost every year.  Toru Okada loses first his cat and then his wife.  He wanders around and meets a lot of strange people in his efforts to find them.  This book feels like a sad and mysterious dream that only a certain kind of loner would understand.

Southsouth of the of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami (2000)

I adore this short, simple, underrated novel.  It’s about a guy who is in love with a girl from his childhood.  Like him, she is a loner, and she also has a lame leg.  Rather than marring her beauty, this flaw is what comes to define her beauty for him.  In adulthood, he is disappointed to learn that she has had surgery to fix it.  What an amazing, beautiful way to write about love.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (1985)

This is a novel with two alternating stories that turn out to be related in the end.  I found the fantastical “End of the World” section compelling, but was somewhat less interested in the “science fiction” aspects of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland.”

Intuition by Allegra Goodman (2007)

How is Allegra Goodman so amazing?  Her first short story collection came out on the day she graduated from college and she has been publishing a steady string of novels ever since.  She has had 2 stories in BASS, and both of them are excellent. Her writing is effortless, her subjects always timely and interesting.  This particular book is about scientists studying cancer and how much subjectivity is involved.  It also deals with the fascinating topic of scientific fraud.

Intuition has a strong sense of story that is so lacking in a lot of contemporary literature.  The cintuitiononfident voice of the first few pages reassured me that I would actually come to care about these people, that stuff would actually happen, and that maybe this would resemble a coherent piece of fiction instead of a collection of non-events.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

Since starting my job two years ago, it has become a lot harder to find the time and energy to focus on the good old heavy-hitters.  But thank goodness I finally made the effort to read Moby-Dick.  It is so amazing.  The greatest.  The pinnacle.  It feels stupid and pointless to even try to describe it.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace (2005)

No one would contest David Foster Wallace’s sheer brilliance and creativity.  But there is something uniquely nihilistic about his work that makes it quite stressful to read–and I say that as someone who usually enjoys depressing things.  Honestly, I dislike reading him.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

I finally read Donna Tartt this year, and she instantly became one of my favorites. The Secret History is the complete package.  Interesting sentences and unusual words, fantastic descriptions, a cast of quirky, fascinating characters, and an actual, super-dramatic plot, a rarity in contemporary literature.  Full disclosure: I have read this book four times this year.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (2002)

I have to say this one puzzled me.  Set in Mississippi, it alternately follows a twelve-year-old girl and a family of drug addicts.  While some passages about Harriet were absorbing and well-observed, I never understood the juxtaposition of Harriet and Danny Ratliff, especially during that strange battle scene in the water tower.  Also, I know this isn’t very cool and postmodern of me, but I hate it when books don’t tie up major loose ends.  I hate that feeling I get when I’m reading and there aren’t that many pages left and I start to think, hey, that (insert major problem here) isn’t going to get solved, is it?  I feel cheated.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

Absolutely loved it.  Voice is one of the hardest things to pinpoint, but as soon as I opened this book I felt assured that Donna Tartt has it.  Every single page was interesting, whether it concerned the aftermath of the terrorist attack in the museum, Theo’s grief, life in Las Vegas, or the antique furniture store.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

This is orphansuch an impressive novel.  Not only has Adam Johnson done lots of fascinating research on North Korea, he somehow manages to make this a story about individuals who are struggling to love and survive in a brutal totalitarian country.  He is able to give his subjects humanity, something that gets lost in all the news stories on the prison camps and the crazy dictators.

A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin (2014)

Ha Jin’s latest novel is about a Chinese spy who ends up living in Virginia.  The novel alternates between a chronological telling of his life and the present-day research of his daughter.  It was interesting to see a fictionalized portrayal of Chinese-American relations in the period following the China’s Communist Revolution.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)

Although I admire the blinding perfection of Jane Austen’s writing, she has never been one of my favorites, for all of those ridiculous, idiosyncratic reasons that make reading so fun.  As a bit of a loner, I’m just not that into stories about parties and getting married.  To me, Sense and Sensibility felt like a lesser version of Pride and Prejudice.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817)

It was kind of a relief to read something by Jane Austen that wasn’t incredibly perfect and intimidating.  Northanger Abbey had Jane Austen’s usual astute social observations, but was perhaps a little too heavy-handed in the satirical aspect.

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794)
radcliffe

This is the novel Northanger Abbey makes fun of.  It is a melodramatic adventure about a heroine who, through much misfortune, ends up imprisoned in her evil uncle’s castle.  Overly melodramatic and unbelievable at times, it is still entertaining.  Also, I just find it impressive that a woman at the time wrote a novel this long and became popular because of it.

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)

Read like a more condensed version of Mysteries of Udolpho.  

 The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1795)

This starts out as an amusing gothic novel about a monk’s fall from grace into sin, but eventually the story travels to the realm of utter depravity.

 

1984 by George Orwell (1949)

I finally re-read this dystopian classic for the first time since high school.  As a piece of fiction, it is deeply flawed.  But I don’t care that it’s not great novel, because as far as social commentary goes, it is brilliant.  Orwell deserves his fame just for coining the terms groupthink and thoughtcrime alone.

Best American Short Stories 2013 by various authors

Speaking of groupthink, last year’s BASS struck me as being unduly motivated by politics.  Many stories in the collection were blatant appeals to trendy liberal pieties.  BASS 2008 remains my favorite year in the series.

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell (1960)

When islandI revisited this childhood favorite, I was shocked at how violent it was.  Within the first few chapters, several men in Karana’s family are killed, and her little brother is killed and eaten by wild dogs.  I didn’t remember any of that.  The story of how she survives on the island afterwards remains just as compelling as it was to my much younger self.

Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford (1970)

I read this biography because there have been several recent Zelda novels that try to reclaim her as a “feminist icon.”  Spoiler alert: she is not a feminist icon, or any kind of icon, except maybe one for party girls who hit their prime at age 18.

The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro (1999)

Technically more of a long short story/short novella.  Whatever it is, who cares?  Alice Munro is always amazing, and this story about love in a nursing home just blew me away.  You have to read it, you absolutely have to.

 

 

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

This one never gets old.  You can read it again and again and love Charlotte Perkins Gilman more every single time.  A classic tale of insanity.

Jane Austen: Reality TV-Worthy Quotes

“She was not a woman of many words; for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.”

“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”

“Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any man in the world who could like them well enough to marry them.”

In Praise of Introverts: Susan Cain’s Quiet

quietcover

It wasn’t until I read this book that I realized I am a classic introvert.  I dislike meeting new people.  I find groups of more than four people challenging, and crowds unbearable.  I hate loud noise.  I prefer to socialize once a week and sometimes even less often, with only one or two people at a time.  Even this amount of “socializing” exhausts me.   I have always hated pointless chit-chat, and find it difficult to talk at all.  This difficulty increases exponentially with people I don’t know and in groups.  Especially in groups, I feel disembodied and paralyzed, as though I don’t have a tongue.

If you don’t know me very well, and have heard me talking, it is the result of years of practice.

The positives: I am happy when alone.  I am content to spend large amounts of time by myself, working on various projects.  I have never found it difficult to become absorbed in detailed labor of various sorts–studying, practicing a musical instrument, writing–for hours on end.  I have never been susceptible to peer pressure.  I am extremely susceptible to pain and depression, but also to the enjoyment of nature, music, and beauty.

Being an introvert never held me back in the small pond of my hometown.  Because I was academically talented, I stood out.  Some adults even admired me for being so quiet, and encouraged the tendency.  In particular, I remember a youth pastor who recommended me for a summer leadership camp, saying, “Quiet rivers run deep.”

So in college, it was traumatic when I was expected to be the complete opposite of everything that I am.  The crowded, noisy freshman dining hall overwhelmed me.  I sat by myself in the darkest corners I could find, missing opportunities to make friends.  I thought I would adapt better to orchestra.  In high school, orchestra been a life-saver, allowing me to find other like-minded teenagers.  They were also misfits who loved books and classical music, and they remain some of my best friends to this day.

College orchestra, it turned out, was mainly an opportunity to drink and party, with a little music thrown in on the side.  I eventually dared to set foot in one of the parties for about five minutes, but quickly fled from the horror of bodies squished together in the dark and ear-splitting music.

I started to believe that something was fundamentally wrong with me.  In class, I sat in silence.  The loudest, flashiest students, never afraid to open their mouths, earned praise and support, snapping up opportunities and fellowships at every turn.

Those hellish four years are the reason I’m so glad I picked up Susan Cain’s book Quiet.  Usually I am skeptical of light non-fiction, thin volumes with a self-helpy tone and a little science thrown in.  But the subtitle caught my eye.  The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.  By then I had started to realize that American culture values people with “personality”: being loud, outgoing, and talkative, even if you don’t have much to say.  I remember seeing an episode of America’s Next Top Model where Tyra Banks dismissed a girl because she was quiet.  She did well in her photoshoots and had a lovely face, but she didn’t talk much.  According to Tyra, that meant she “didn’t have a personality.”  That really bothered me.  Being quiet was her personality.

When I finally picked up a copy of Quiet, I recognized myself instantly.  Though I had started to suspect it, I never labeled myself as an introvert before.  Rather than finding that word limiting, it helped me to embrace my quiet side.  I liked being alone, and that was okay.  The thing I most loved about Quiet was how Susan Cain interprets introversion not as a liability, but as an asset.  She listed numerous scientists, musicians, and writers who achieved what they did not despite their introversion, but because of it.  Introverts are tuned in to their inner life.  They are observant–a key attribute for scientists and writers.  Because they don’t need to socialize constantly, they are able to focus on their work for long stretches of time.

I am so grateful to Susan Cain for writing a book about the positive aspects of introversion.  Now, when I go to a concert alone, or spend a lot of time writing, I don’t think of it as weird, but as a central aspect of my personality.  I am better able to enjoy the rich inner life that comes with being an introvert–the intense engagement with books, music, and ideas; the enjoyment of silence; the close relationships with just a few friends. In this noisy world, which has only gotten more chatty with the rise of the Internet, Susan Cain’s work is a much-needed message.

“Cross” by Rebecca Makkai

I am a big fan of Rebecca Makkai’s short stories. She was in Best American Short Stories four years in a row (2008-2011). Her work is consistently strong and interesting. You can read examples at Five Chapters and Nashville Review.

Her story “Cross” (Michigan Quarterly Review) stuck out to me because it’s about musicians–a topic I hope to address at some point in my writing–and because it has a happy ending. My stories tend to be not-so-happy, and I find happy endings difficult to pull off convincingly.  This one was particularly nice because the story was not obviously one that would end well.  Read it and see what you think.