Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Adventures in Memoir

A couple of weeks ago, I finished the first draft of a YA book I didn’t intend to write and so, it comes as no surprise to me that the next project vying for (and currently winning) my attention might be some sort of memoir, another unexpected project. One of the things people often tell us when they find out we’re writers is that they, too, have an idea for a book. Frequently, this idea involves telling—in full or part—the story of their lives. Why? Because this life—its successes and failures, joys and heartaches, fateful events and surprises—is all we have, really. And when things happen to us, they seem full of meaning because they are, right? Or at least, isn’t that why we’re alive, to find meaning in the things that happen to us?

Reader, I have no answers! Only questions.

  • I’ve been thinking about the roles we play in life, and how they change from season to season, year to year. I’ve been thinking about the different phases that sometimes, go along with these roles. Sometimes, not.
  • I’ve been thinking about how these chapters of life line up, shoulder to shoulder, hyper-aware of each other.
  • I’ve been thinking about family and how it’s defined by intent, sentiment, and presence. And the strongest of these is presence (literal and imagined), which proves the other two.
  • Related: I’ve been thinking about DNA, the imprints in our very machinery.
  • I’ve been thinking about reportage as a way to honor yourself (myself!).
  • And...I’m interested in finding ways memories can be translated into words. How can we relay our experiences in a form that feels like life?

Lately, I’ve been reading more in the memoir lane: traditional memoirs and other books that don’t look and sound like traditional memoir, and yet... I share some of them with you here.

The Glen Rock Book of the Dead by Marion Wink (2008)

Shoutout to Prof. Danger for pointing me towards this book. Basically, Wink writes short pieces about people she knew who died; in these snapshots, an autobiography of sorts emerges. I keep thinking about this book, and thinking about it…

The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy (2018)

The author writes about her life, post-divorce, touching on universal themes relevant to all women: the conflict between nurturing your creative self and others, feminism's goals and failures, the death of parents. From the Guardian review: “Instead, what Levy gives us is an account of her internal world, a shape-shifting space where past and present coexist, where buildings are not so much bricks and mortar as extended metaphors and where identity is in a radical flux of unraveling and remaking.” Yep, this book hit close to home in topic and in method, was probably the turning point from which I had no choice about writing something memoir-ish.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (2018)

I wrote about these powerful essays in my Favorite Reads of 2019 post.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell (2018)

The author recalls seventeen occasions in her life that brought her near death. I found some of these quite poignant, others less so. I’m not sure the book had the cohesiveness I would have liked, but the form and intent were interesting.

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro (2019)

One of the traditional memoirs I’ve read recently. Shapiro was in her mid-fifties when her Ancestry.com DNA test pointed out a startling truth about her family. I also heard the author speak about the experience, and her story is personal and moving but also raises all sorts of ethical questions for our times.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung (2018)

Another story of biological family lost and found. When Chung was pregnant with her first child, she began a search for her Korean birth parents. This memoir explores ideas of family, identity and culture.

In the works for 2020 reading:

And more:

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)
Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinead Gleeson (2020)
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (2019)

I’d love to hear your ideas for memoirs, especially the non-traditional sort. By all means, point me in the right direction as I begin this journey.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Favorite Reads, 2019

I was debating whether or not to do my usual write-up this year. It didn't feel like I read that much and I wasn't sure I had many five-star experiences, as far as books go. But it turns out that in 2019, I finished 30 books, up one from last year’s count of 29. Perhaps this range is a new normal. I was so busy with other things: editing, writing (short stories, the bulk of that pesky YA I’ve been dancing around for years, and the beginnings of what looks to be some sort of memoir), and teaching, both workshops and my first experience in a university classroom. So I’m pleased with this number. 

My reading list for 2019 is the most varied I can remember in terms of genre. Of the 30, only 18 were novels. I read one short story collection (a crime!) and 11 books that fall into the “Other” column. Of these: two essay collections, two memoirs, one grammar guide and three other books that address the writing craft and/or life in some way. I read one book of "tree portraits"—a botanical guide of sorts, one collection of the extra bits an author has written as introductions to other books, and one scientific-leaning book about the hidden life of the tree world.

Readers of this blog know that the bulk of my summer was consumed with thoughts and readings about trees, so I won’t revisit that here. A couple of those books made their way onto my list, however, which I will begin here. My eight favorite reads of the year, in no particular order, are:

Meetings with Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham (1997)

This is that book of tree portraits, one of the most unique books I’ve ever read, one that surprised me, educated me and surprisingly, touched me. Read my original post here.

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018)

This Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel—also from my Summer of Tree Books—is an wholly original, encompassing read with a unique form and layer upon layer of meaning. I wrote several posts while reading it; here are my first impressions, which were gushing.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (2013)

This is a literary mystery about several deaths over the summer of 1961 in a small, Minnesota town. But it’s also a poignant, coming-of-age tale and an exploration of memory and how tragedies can be reconciled with notions about God’s grace. I suppose if I had to choose just one book from my list as a recommendation, it would be this one, for its beautiful writing and deeply felt wisdoms.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (2018) 

These essays deal with what’s promised in the title—considerations of autobiography in writing—and other topics about the craft of writing, but they encompass much more too: reading, identity, politics, family, culture, and one man’s experiences in and out of making art.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)

From the publisher: “A moving story of love, friendship, grief, healing, and the magical bond between a woman and her dog.” And I would argue that if you start this book hoping for a This Dog’s Life vibe, you will be disappointed. It’s definitely about all of those things, but the dog is almost beside the point. As a writer, this is one of those novels that blows open a world of possibility. As a human, it reached me in ways I couldn't have anticipated. This novel sneaks up on you and doesn’t let go for a long time. Well deserving of all the praise, in my opinion.

Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer (2019)

Yes, a guide to grammar was one of my favorite books of the year. This book is funny and entertaining and satisfying on so many levels to those of us who care about such things. If you don’t, then maybe you wouldn’t like it. But I can’t really imagine anyone not liking it.

Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories by Robert Shapard and James Thomas (Editors) (1983)

Considered by many to be the harbinger of the rise of flash fiction in the U.S. (although, certainly, flash has existed for centuries), this collection edged its way onto my list. Not every story is a five-star read, but enough of them are to justify recommending it here. So many great pieces that hold up these many years later. 

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017)

The story of a Mississippi family told in alternating perspectives, including a ghost’s. This beautifully written novel bridges past and present, the living and those who have passed, and illuminates the complicated bonds of family and unpleasant truths about America’s history. This was my last read of the year and an inspiring springboard into 2020.

What are my reading goals for the new year? Here are the books calling to me from my to-read pile, as of right now. In the coming year, I plan to read more YA and possibly, a biography or two. I’d like to continue seeking out novels and memoirs that experiment with form. And for my summer reading project, I might just build a French theme around that Hilary Mantel book.

As always, I’d love to hear about your very favorite reads of the year, or any recommendations you may have. Happy reading in the new decade!

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Final Summer of Tree Books post: The Hidden Life of Trees

This week, I’m wrapping up my Summer of Tree Books reading with The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. As you might imagine, this book is full of interesting facts about the way trees live. Such as:

Surrounding trees will send nourishment to a sick or dying tree, because “every tree is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible.”

Trees have defense mechanisms such as scent compounds that can be dispersed in the air, or “toxic tannins in their bark and leaves” to deter insects and animals.

Like people, some trees are more social than others.

Reproduction practices between species of trees have been well-studied, but there is still a lot we don’t know and/or can’t understand. (This also seems very similar to humans.)

Sometimes, trees growing in a group make efforts so that they all reach pretty much the same potential, which seems to go against our “survival of the fittest” understandings of evolution.

There is more, much more, in this fascinating book and although it is perhaps a bit of a drier read than Meetings with Remarkable Trees, it is still well worth your time. As I mentioned in my last post, one of the most rewarding aspects of my summer reading project was the way all of these books began to work together, one informing and enriching the next. This experience has certainly made me look at trees, and the natural world in general, in a new, more appreciative light. And when I started teaching my class on writing for children and teens this week, I read The Giving Tree to them, and that took on a new resonance as well. That selfless tree!

So what of next summer’s reading project? Is it too early to start thinking about it? Well, for better or worse, a well-meaning friend has pointed me in the direction of the French Revolution and for a variety of reasons, that will most likely be my focus in summer, 2020. Recommendations welcome!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Summer of Tree Books: Meetings with Remarkable Trees

The third entry in my Summer of Tree Books is a unique reading experience. As for dimensions, the book is coffee-table book size: 11 ½ inches by 9 ½, and although it’s not a hardcover, it’s laminated and fairly hefty. I read the entire thing in one sitting during a flight to Boston. From the inside flap:

“With this astonishing collection of tree portraits, Thomas Pakenham has produced a new kind of tree book. The arrangement owes little to conventional botany. The sixty trees are grouped according to their own strong personalities: Natives, Travellers, Shrines, Fantasies and Survivors.”

If you recall, this description was of great interest to me, the idea that a tree could have a personality and share similarities in this way with other types of trees. I was expecting the book to be a rather dry read, with the respite of beautiful photos to keep you going and I was wrong about one of those things. The book did, indeed, have lovely photos (in some cases, full spreads such as this one), 

but it was anything but dry. For each tree that Thomas Pakenham visited during the five years he sought them out, he wrote something of the tree’s botany, or history, or reputation. Or something of all three. There were stories about how a particular type of tree came to be in non-native area. There were stories of eccentric tree planters and the sociological connections certain groups have had to certain trees. We learn that like humans, trees have different lifespans that are affected by situation and chance. There are trees in the book with girths as wide 35 feet, trees that start as saplings only a pencil’s width. Pakenham shares anecdotes from his own experiences with his garden; his enthusiasm for the artistry and beauty of these often majestic beings comes across on each page.

And for me, there was a powerful synergy happening, synapses firing from one tree book I’ve read to the next. In his introduction, Pakenham recounts his experiences in Yunnan, in south-west China, where he came upon the only large ancient tree—a hemlock—in what used to be a forest. The rest had been taken down by loggers.

“We tend to take our large, old trees for granted… The indifference towards old trees makes a mockery of our supposed new respect for the environment. Consider the raw facts. The giants of our native species—oak, ash, and beech—are the biggest living things on these islands: heavier than any land animal, taller than most buildings, older than many ancient monuments. If a big tree was not a living organism it would still be a remarkable object.”

Later in the book he discusses the ways in which a forest works as a whole, integrating even dead trees into a system that includes plants, insects, and animals. He talks about the ripples of harm done by removing these systems and how planting new trees doesn’t come close to making up for it. And this topic was of paramount concern to the botanist character in The Overstory, a scientist who, by the way, wrote a study about the social aspect of trees (see next week’s post about the final book of my summer of tree reading). In fact, each of the four books I read this summer touched upon the tragedy of logging in some way. This is unsurprising I suppose.

On page 22 of Meetings with Remarkable Trees, we are introduced to the Tandridge Yew, a massive specimen that grows in a churchyard in Tandridge, Surrey. Pakenham explains the difficulty of assigning an age to this particular tree but guesses it is probably at least 1000 years old. And I thought, of course, of the yew that plays a very important role in Rules for Visiting. Although Kane’s novel refers to another famous tree—the Fortingall Yew in Scotland—I couldn’t help but think of these two old souls as related.

One of the most interesting aspects of Meetings with Remarkable Trees was discovering the strange and varied habits and features of so many trees. 
Like this tulip tree at Kew, which forms a flower bed over 100 feet off the ground. Truly, how would I ever had this perspective without this book? I would have never noticed, or looked. And at the end of the day, that’s what Pakenham’s book was for me, an invitation to look, notice and think about these beings that surround us on all sides, which have been here before we arrived and which will, in most cases, long outlive us. On our first day in Boston, we strolled through the public garden, which is full of lovely, old trees. Most of the garden was planted over a century ago, with a wide assortment of native and imported trees. They are labeled and well-cared-for. And probably it was my favorite part of the city, now that I was trained to look at trees.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Summer of Tree Books (and poems): The Willows of Massachusetts

This week, I am traveling with my kids throughout the northeast, spending much of our time in and around Boston. I'll post next Friday about my reading progress with the final two Summer of Tree Books. For now, here is:

The Willows of Massachusetts
by Denise Levertov
Animal willows of November
in pelt of gold enduring when all else
has let go all ornament
and stands naked in the cold.
Cold shine of sun on swamp water,
cold caress of slant beam on bough,
gray light on brown bark.
Willows--last to relinquish a leaf,
curious, patient, lion-headed, tense
with energy, watching
the serene cold through a curtain
of tarnished strands.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka