Book fever


My current to-be-read pile

My current to-be-read pile

I don’t’ know about you, but I have so many books I’m longing to read that it’s a wonder I can make time for frivolous things like work or sleep.

What I’m reading now

I tend to have a few books going at once, in different genres and different formats. Here’s what I’m currently reading.

  • We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride (novel)
  • The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart (novel – audiobook)
  • The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison (essays – ebook)
  • Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares by Carmen Oliveira (biography – ebook). This one’s for my book group.

What I plan to read

In the photo above, you can see my stack of books to be read. I also have a TBR stack you can’t see, because it contains ebooks and audio books. These include:

  • Abroad by Katie Crouch (novel)
  • The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (novel)
  • Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (novel)
  • Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary (nonfiction)
  • Above the East China Sea by Sara Bird (novel)
  • Some Sing, Some Cry by Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza (novel)

Bookstores: part of the problem

Part of my problem is that I live in Washington, DC, a city with a rich culture of independent bookstores.

Busboys and Poets, for instance, is a small local chain of restaurants. Each restaurant holds a tiny jewel of a bookstore, and each conducts regular readings and programs – all designed for politically progressive people. If ever a commercial venture was built to siphon away my paycheck, it’s Busboys and Poets.

But they’ll have to stand in line behind Politics and Prose, one of the nation’s pre-eminent independent bookstores. Politics and Prose has a fantastic – and relentless – program of readings by wonderful authors of all kinds. On Saturday I heard Adele Levine talk about Run, Don’t Walk, her moving and witty chronicle of working with amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. On Thursday I’m going to hear Amy Bloom discuss her new novel, Lucky Us

Libraries: also part of the problem

Of course, all of these books, including audiobooks and ebooks – even Kindle books – are available from the public library. That helps my budget. It doesn’t help me fight the fever.

Book fever

I’ve got it bad. Am I suffering alone? Let me know what’s on your to-be-read list.

Make me care. I dare you.

Photo by David McSpadden

Photo by David McSpadden

Over the years I’ve read and cherished many books that speak directly to my interests. A brief glance at my bookshelves reveals a few examples.


  • People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
  • American Woman by Susan Choi
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Is This Tomorrow? by Caroline Leavitt
  • Sleep Toward Heaven by Amanda Eyre Ward


  • Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
  • Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
  • The Temple Bombing by Melissa Fay Greene
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

It was easy for these authors to woo me as a reader. They wrote about topics in which I was already intensely interested.

But the kind of literary seduction I love most is when writers, through the power of their words and ideas, force me to care about issues or stories that hold no intrinsic attraction for me.

You made me love you. I didn’t want to do it.

The novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is one example. Thomas Cromwell? Henry VIII? Meh. But her writing drew me in immediately, and I devoured all three books in the series. Other examples include the novel Doc by Mary Doria Russell, the biography Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, and pretty much anything ever written by John McPhee.

Recently I’ve encountered two nonfiction books that fall into the category of literary seductions.

My latest literary seductions

One is Home Fires by Donald Katz. (Yes, audiobook lovers, that Donald Katz – the one who founded He had a distinguished career as a writer before he got the crazy idea that people would buy audiobooks over the Internet.)

At first glance I thought: 640 pages that chronicle four decades in the life of a Jewish family in America? No thanks; I have a Jewish family of my own. But in fact the book is riveting, and illuminated much about the decades of social and political upheaval everyone my age has lived through.

Another seductive book is The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson. The fact is, I don’t care about the soil (although I like to eat – and breathe). I come from generations of apartment dwellers, and I have never gotten the hang of gardening. But Kristin’s sparkling writing and clear, persuasive case compelled me to care – and made me understand both the promise and the stakes of what she called “our great green hope.” Full disclosure: Kristin is a friend of mine. But I read and loved her first nonfiction book, Stalking the Divine, (another seducer) long before I met her.

Why are we talking about this anyway?

I started thinking about this question of books you end up loving despite yourself because of a minor controversy I’d been hearing about on Facebook and Twitter. Apparently some guy wrote an article about how attractive 42-year-old women are. Many women writers thought the article was hilarious, and not in a good way.

If you held a contest to find a topic I would pay good money NOT to read about, the question of how middle-aged men perceive 42-year-old women would be a sure winner. The only way to make me care about it less would be to fold in something about sports or the stock market.

Yet I read an essay by a writer named Julie Checkoway that was a response to the original article, and her essay was so funny, wise and beautifully written that I’m still thinking about it, days later. Her essay may not qualify as a full-fledged literary seduction, because I still have zero interest in the original article or the kerfuffle it sparked. But I am grateful that the utterly boring controversy led me to discover her as a writer.

Guilty pleasures

Have you been seduced by a book that at first appeared totally unsuitable for you? Do tell.



A quote to savor

“… that dark grope toward truth that lies at the heart of being human.”

This resonant quote is from The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle by Sara Wheeler. In my opinion the phrase can stand on its own, but it is excerpted from Wheeler’s longer description of the Solovki islands in the White Sea.

For me the phrase has meaning that transcends its context. It has haunted me since I read it a few years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it means something different to each reader.

A quote to savor on a Sunday afternoon.

 Photo by CubaGallery

Photo by CubaGallery

Welfare is a Women’s Issue (1972) by Johnnie Tillmon

Not every writer wants her words to be timeless. I’m sure when Johnnie Tillmon wrote this in 1972, she hoped her words and her situation would soon be obsolete. They are as true today as they were 42 years ago. Outrageous. [Reposted from Poor as Folk blog.]

Poor as Folk


Welfare is a Women’s Issue (1972) by Johnnie Tillmon

I’m a woman. I’m a black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare.

In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being. If you’re all those things, you don’t count at all. Except as a statistic.

I am 45 years old. I have raised six children. There are millions of statistics like me. Some on welfare. Some not. And some, really poor, who don’t even know they’re entitled to welfare. Not all of them are black. Not at all. In fact, the majority-about two-thirds-of all the poor families in the country are white.

Welfare’s like a traffic accident. It can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women.

And that’s why welfare is a women’s issue. For a lot…

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Let the judging begin


My ARCs have arrived – the Advanced Reader Copies of my novel. These are real live books that look almost exactly like the final book, except that the text has not yet been proofread and the back cover contains some technical information that won’t be in the final version.

I am not being immodest when I say the book is beautiful. I had nothing to do with its appearance – all praise goes to the designer.

Now what?

The book will be released on November 1. In the meantime, we try to get it reviewed.

My publisher is assiduously contacting book reviewers and review outlets with the hope that they will request an ARC. Many have done so and more, we hope, are pending. 

So many  books, so little time

Of course, requesting an ARC does not mean the person will actually review Her Own Vietnam, much less review it positively. Most book reviewers are writers themselves, many with outside jobs as editors or teachers. They live among teetering stacks of books and articles demanding to be read, beset on all sides by deadlines.

Like all writers, book reviewers live in the condition the novelist Alice McDermott described as “having homework every day for the rest of your life.” And like all devout readers, book reviewers have much more desire than time to read.

But still: a reviewer could be reading my novel right this second with the specific intent of judging it, in print and in public.

Different ways to hear it

Listen to this sentence in your head. You could hear it in at least two ways:

“A reviewer could be reading my novel right now!” [Delight]

“A reviewer could be reading my novel right now!” [Terror]

You be the judge.