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.

The Writing Process: A Blog Relay

Read Women 2014 by Joanna Walsh

Read Women 2014 by Joanna Walsh

The writer Rosalie Morales Kearns asked me to participate in a blog relay Q&A about the writing process. She is the author of Virgins and Tricksters, a collection of shimmering short stories that combine erudition and whimsy, a sly feminist wit and a sense of melancholy. Rosalie is also the founder of Shade Mountain Press, a new literary press dedicated to publishing women, which in 2014 will publish two books: Egg Heaven, a collection of haunting and lyrical short stories by Robin Parks; and my own novel, Her Own Vietnam.

Check out Rosalie’s blog to learn about her writing process and see what she’s working on now.

Writing Process Q & A

Question 1. What are you working on?

I’m putting the finishing touches on Her Own Vietnam, which will be published this fall. The novel is about a woman who served as a U.S. Army nurse in Vietnam, and decades later must confront her wartime memories and the fractures in her family life as the country prepares for the war in Iraq.

At this point, the writing is completed and the book is in the design and production process. In the next few weeks Rosalie will send Advanced Reader Copies to review outlets, and then the book will go through a final proofreading before it goes to press. I’m lucky that Shade Mountain Press invites its authors to participate in all of this, from discussing the cover design to considering different styles for the chapter headings to thinking about which publications and websites might review the book.

Question 2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Her Own Vietnam is my third novel. All explore in different ways the terrain of women’s friendships. My characters tend to be politically engaged in the world, and recognize the gravitational pull of public events on their personal lives. I bring a lesbian sensibility to the work, which means a sensitivity to women’s experiences and the struggles of all outsiders to resist the undertow of other people’s definitions of them.

Question 3. Why do you write what you do?

My writing tends to start with a question. What would happen if…? What would it feel like to…? For all three of my novels, the central question of the book has come to me while I was walking. Clearly I need to walk more often.

Question 4. How does your writing process work?

I always envy those writers who say the words just come to them, and admire the writers who outline everything beforehand. For me, writing is an act of exploration: I write to see what will happen next. I start with what I think is the beginning of the book, and keep writing, seeing an inch or two farther along the path with each writing session. I generally don’t know where I’m headed until at least halfway through the first draft. (Sadly, this is also how I drive.)

Writing a novel is a little like being in love; there’s a current of energy constantly running just beneath the surface of your daily life. For that reason, I always carry a little notebook and a pen, to jot down ideas that occur to me throughout the day. Somehow these ideas lose their potency if I type them into my phone or computer. Paper and pen still have a special kind of power for me.

Passing the baton

I’ve invited two writers to carry on the relay and answer these four questions about the writing process on their own blogs. Please look for their posts next week.

Kristin Ohlson has an impressive knack for writing compelling nonfiction about serious subjects and infusing her work with warmth, humor and drama. Her latest book, The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, was published this spring and is collecting wonderful reviews. The Los Angeles Times called it “an important book and a pleasure to read.” Kristin also wrote the award-winning Stalking the Divine, and co-wrote the New York Times bestseller The Kabul Beauty School. Read her blog here (click on Blog and News):

Adele Levine recently published Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life Of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She is a prolific humor writer, but this powerful memoir of her years working with American troops who lost their limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan packs a punch along with the laughs. Read about Adele’s writing process here:

I hope you will explore the websites and work of these extraordinary writers. Remember, it’s still (and always) the year to read women!



Are these books your cup of tea?

For a change of pace, I thought I’d stop talking about my own book and post some mini-reviews of books I’ve read lately. Some I loved. Others were, well, not my cup of tea.

Let’s start with four books I enjoyed.

These books were my cup of tea

My cup of tea! Photo: Girla Obscura

My cup of tea!
Photo: Girla Obscura

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon.
In 1977 William Least Heat-Moon lost his job and his marriage, and decided to pack his truck and drive across America on small country roads – depicted on maps as the “blue highways” that trickle off from the major expressways. In his travels he meets fascinating people, explores dwindling small towns and their human history, and considers what to do with the rest of his life. Although he identifies as Native American like his father, Heat-Moon resembles his white mother, so he frequently hears the unselfconscious racism that white people share with one another. The book is a satisfying meander through territory that is by now twice-vanished: the rural towns whose singularity was already being erased by television and superhighways; and the America of 1977, still reeling from the Vietnam War and the social upheaval of the 1960s.

Margot by Jillian Cantor.
What if Margot Frank, Anne Frank’s older sister, had survived the concentration camps? What if she tried to shed her past by moving to Philadelphia and creating a new identity for herself as a non-Jewish woman named Margie Franklin? This is the premise of Cantor’s compelling and haunting novel, which takes place in 1959 just as the movie version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” sweeps across America.

The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzhko.  
This sprawling novel takes place in modern-day Ukraine and in the Ukraine of 60 years ago. The plot hinges on the friendship between two women in today’s Ukraine: a journalist who hosts a popular TV interview program, and a respected artist who is killed in a freak car accident. Their story develops with a parallel story about a woman freedom fighter during WWII, about whom the journalist is trying to make a documentary. The novel is a bit challenging to read – the plot swirls around in time and place (some of it taking place in dreams) – but well worth it for the revelations about life in Ukraine, explorations about how people absorb or fail to absorb seismic political and cultural shifts in one lifetime, and wise observations about human nature and friendship among women.

Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss.
A collection of essays about race, written by a white woman. The essays are brilliant, incisive, brave, and unpredictable, drawing surprising connections and provocative conclusions about everyday American life and the hidden and overt dynamics that bind us together and tear us apart.

Not my cup of tea

Not my cup of tea.  Photo: Ege Maltepe

Not my cup of tea.
Photo: Ege Maltepe

Here are two books that got lots of buzz and critical praise, but that I found disappointing.

Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.
A bold but naive young woman, known only by the city of her birth (Reno) moves to New York to be part of the cutting-edge art world in mid-1970s. What Reno loves is speed – as in skiing and riding motorcycles – and men. These two appetites get her involved with the black-sheep son of a rich Italian family that manufactures motorcycles, and ultimately in the radical politics of Italy. Despite the critical acclaim it received and the fact that on the surface this book should appeal to me strongly, I was only lukewarm about it. Reno’s passivity in her relationships with men got tiresome.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwen.
I’ve tried and tried to like Ian McEwen, but to no avail. While I can appreciate the clarity and precision of his prose, it has always seems soulless to me. And when his novels reveal their startling plot twists at the end, you can practically hear the Law & Order “cha-chung” sound in the background. His depiction of the inner lives of women characters is particularly unconvincing, although that actually turned out to be a strength in this book. All that being said, Sweet Tooth does have some things to recommend it. The novel is about a young university graduate who almost accidentally finds herself working for MI5, the British Secret Service, after being groomed for the job by an older professor with whom she had an affair. Her undercover task is to find and encourage with grant money the right sort of young writers whose work will provide cultural and intellectual support for the anti-communist side of the Cold War. Set in the 1970s, the novel does an excellent job of portraying the atmosphere of Britain in decline, beset by terrorism, economic woes, cultural upheaval and self-inflicted political wounds.

So many books…

I just finished reading the novel The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (my cup of tea!) and started Redeployment by Phil Kay. Among the many, many books on my teetering “to be read” pile is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

How do you handle the perpetual problem of so many books, so little time?