Current Reading

{The Paris Review + Chai Green Tea}

The interview with Hilary Mantel in the new Paris Review is amazing.  And it’s such ridiculously good timing as I work on this book of historical fiction and wrestle through its myriad attendant challenges.

Mantel talks pretty frankly about this writing process:

When I come to write what I call a big scene, especially in… any historical material, I prepare for it.  Whatever I’ve done on that scene, I put aside.  I read all my notes, all my drafts, and all the source material it’s derived from, then I take a deep breath, and I do it.  It’s like walking on stage — with the accompanying stage fright.

And, she continues:

When I’m writing a novel about historical figures, I have to be everybody.  It’s strenuous…. When people are real, though dead,… I consider them my responsibility.

It is a heady business, this writing fiction set in the past.  So happy to have come across this new interview.

Plus, perennially grateful for the stash of green tea my mother sent to Virginia for my residency.  The chai in this blend cuts any bitterness when, writing along mid-scene, I invariably forget and leave it over-steeping.

Advertisements

Hey Baltimore & DC, What a Weekend!

Baltimore and DC, you all have the best weekend coming.  Jonathan Harper’s new collection Daydreamers comes out tomorrow and One More Page Books in Falls Church is feting the launch with a 5:00 reading and party.  You can (and should) buy this fantastic new book and put it at the top of your list for spring reading.

Daydreamers

The BMA is also getting in on the weekend action with a Contemporary Print Fair on Saturday and Sunday, which is an terrific opportunity to pick up original new art and see and support contemporary talents.

And up the road, the Smith College Club is hosting its inimitable and enormous annual book sale all weekend.

Smith College Book Sale 2015

And because this weekend really is the best, you can continue the party with a Silent Art Auction and Celebration of the Arts gala (complete with emerging performing artists), brought to you from my old friends at the Howard County Arts Council.  Tickets start at just $50 — a steal!

Bookshopping: Powell’s

Powells

I’ve been going to Powell’s Books for decades; it’s my favorite bookstore.  During my few days in Portland, I went to Powell’s in the afternoons to do a little bookbrowsing and miscellaneous research-trip preparation (and to visit this novel, which arrived home the day I posted about it.)

Powells

One of the things I like about Powell’s is the way it mixes new and used books together on the same shelf.  So you can find all the copies of a book in one place and pick the one — and the pricepoint — that suits you.  There’s a way that this arrangement makes the experience about the books themselves and not about which spending bracket you fall into.

This is echoed even in the featured shelves of award winners and recommendations.  New and used books are mixed together here, as well.  And the Award Winner shelves don’t only promote this year’s winners, but mix in award winning books and writers from all different timeframes.  These books have value and weight and contemporary relevance at Powell’s far after date of publication.  Good books resonate.  In an era of flash news, it feels good to be someplace where we can circle back on an novel, revisit.  Where these books from decades apart are weighted together in the same conversation — alphabetized on the feature shelves so that they stop being temporal and abut each other across time and content.

Powell’s has a whole huge room devoted to its featured shelves and tables — and does a remarkably creative job at recommending books to us.  There is a “Choose Your Adventure” table full of books about people traveling to other places, and a “Knockout Narratives” table of essay collections, where Consider the Lobster and Sloane Crosley’s new collection and Marilynne Robinson all feel at home.

Their recommendations in general are robust and wide-ranging, including both the oft-cited new books receiving critical acclaim and well-written new books that have gotten little attention.  Because in the end there are so many wonderful new books written, and we wind up reading and hearing about so few.  Powell’s allows some of those we’ve missed to resurface.  I find things here that I wouldn’t otherwise, and am grateful for the books I come across when I visit.

Powell’s has multiple branches scattered through Portland and one of the most active, ambitious reading series in the country.  So huge its main location requires a map and several solid days to explore fully, Powell’s is a cornerstone in our national literary culture.

I am fortunate that it has also been a recurring fixture in my life as a reader.  On this visit, I was thinking about how I might write about Powell’s, and I thought about how it’s a place to check in with regularly, to visit and revisit.  It’s a part of the rhythm of my reading.

Even during the years when I’m not able to visit in person, Powell’s is my default for ordering books online.  And in those moments when you aren’t able to buy from a local bookstore, I urge you to do your online buying from Powell’s, too.  Because this bookstore is an integral part of how we think and talk about and read books here in our country, and it’s important that we support it.

Recent Reading: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

IMG_4662

I started reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North on this research trip, and I can’t put it down.  I also can’t quite manage to carry a copy of it with me (I’ve got to keep my luggage lithe and light on this trip).  So I’ve been picking up a copy of Flanagan’s novel every time I set foot in a bookstore and reading a dozen pages of it each time.

His writing is so rich and lyrical.  “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” the novel starts.  “Dorrigo Evans’ earliest memories were of sun flooding a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother.  A wooden church hall.   Blinding light and him toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into the arms of women.  Women who loved him.  Like entering the sea and returning to the beach.  Over and over.”

I’m transfixed by the lyricism and syntax of that opening, and by the sense of this writer’s authority .  The perspective is unexpected in modern fiction: a third that is both intimate and distant.  We occupy a sweep of time.

And there is a sentence like this:

“Backdropped by woodlands of writhing peppermint gums and silver wattle that waved and danced in the heat, it was hot and hard in summer, and hard, simply hard, in winter.”

Which is so perfectly evocative and so fully rendered it takes my breath away.

Set in Tasmania and then in a Japanese POW camp during the war, the novel feels like apt reading for me at this juncture in my story collection — and my research trip.

I cannot wait to see how Flanagan realizes the rest of this novel, which I have ordered from Powells (where I have been reading it the last few days) and which will be waiting for me when I get back home.

Bookshopping: Magus Books, Seattle

The other bookstore I visited in Seattle is Magus Books.  Just steps from the University of Washington campus, Magus Books has an extensive collection of used books in this old, vine-laced bookshop.

The shop is especially strong in its older hardcovers.  There are bookshelves full of well-cared for gilded spine collectibles and classic hardcovers complete with box sleeves.

They also carry a great collection of children’s novels from the early and mid-twentieth century.  (I bought one of the ones on this shelf!)*

I really like how they mark the beginning of each section with related prints and images.

The day I was there I was especially drawn to their botany and birding and antique book collections, along with their impressive art books.  I found one on Stuart Davis and another great one on Henry Moore that I wished I could fit in my luggage.  Not to mention a couple more children’s novels and pocket books I really wanted.

One of the aspects I liked best about this bookstore is its knowledgeable and thoughtful staff.  I had a great conversation with the man working there that day about various older book series they had on display, and really admired his expertise and low-key generosity.

I liked this bookstore and Elliott Bay Books for different reasons.  The two are a terrific balance.  Magus is another one of those bookstores I wish I lived close to.  It’s the kind of place where I think if I dropped by every so often, I’d light on something different each time.  And I have so much more I want to talk over with these booksellers about early 20th-century book publications.

*Yes, I did already violate my prohibition on buying books on this research trip.  I really don’t have any spare room or weight in my backpack during these nomadic next few weeks, so I’ll have to ship this one home to myself before I leave Seattle….  Not buying books (or supporting these independent bookstores) is lousy!

Bookshopping: Elliott Bay Books, Seattle

After some research meetings the other day, I stopped at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.  Their New Fiction table and staff recommendation shelves reflect an unusually broad and sensitive reading of new book releases.

Their staff has pulled together recommendations that not only include the books that are currently getting a lot of attention, but also a rich collection of new books that I hadn’t yet heard about.   I felt like the two hours I spent there were completely absorbed in taking in these tables of new titles.  Being there felt like an important part of my work as a fiction writer.

They have extensive staff recommendation shelves — the largest staff recommendation section I’ve ever seen, peppered with some especially lovely and evocative description cards.  And even beyond the usual sections of staff recommendations and new releases and bookclub suggestions, there are themed tables and endcaps upon endcaps of interesting selections.  Elliott Bay Books’ tables and shelves feel like a cross between a great reading list and a Maureen Corrigan book review.

I was particularly taken with their Resolution Reads shelf — always an interesting concept in books.  Theirs feels playful: it includes classics like Ulysses, contemporary giants such as Murakami and Tartt’s Goldfinch, mixed in with a book on personal finance, The Art of Urban Sketching and Mindy Kaling’s essay collection.  Elliott Bay’s staff seems to embrace a wide picture of what, exactly, our resolutions may include (laughter, possibly?)

The bookstore is also active in supporting local and contemporary writers: Elliott Bay hosts an extensive reading series.  (Even while I was there, a staff member was updating their chalkboard with details on the next night’s reading.)  And augmenting this effort to promote contemporary writers, they publish two newsletters — a monthly event guide to upcoming readings and a seasonal gazette full of book recommendations.

In addition to all that, Elliott Bay has impressive selections of art magazines and literary journals, and a whole table devoted to poetry collection highlights (which I’ve found is always a hallmark of a good bookstore).

The store itself is beautiful — huge and full of rich, warm wood floors and wooden beams.  There are two floors of books and a lower level just for their readings.

I wish I lived closer to this bookstore so that I could stop here more often to replenish my reading list from their selections.

And I really wish I could have picked up a handful of books here during my visit.  On this research trip, I have to keep my pack light, so I really can’t carry books.  It killed me though.  There are at least half a dozen books from Elliott Bay I’m eager to read — and it’s so important to support independent bookstores.  Fortunately, they do sell online, so an order is certainly in my future when I get back.

Bookshopping: Carroll & Carroll

On my weekend trip to the Poconos, I stopped at Carroll & Carroll Booksellers in Stroudsburg.  Walking down the main drag in Stroudsburg feels like going back in time a few decades: they have a bookshop, a music store, a camera shop, and just for good measure a homemade ice cream shop (called, delightfully, Sweet Creams.  Get the cinnamon.  It’s delicious.)

IMG_9233

Carroll & Carroll has a terrific collection that encompasses everything from brand-new novels and hardcovers to standard-issue used books, to some pretty gorgeous antique editions.  And they’re all jumbled together in great, inviting piles.  Usually when I see bookstores mix new and used books together like this — at favorite bookstores like Boulder Books and Powells — the used books are incorporated into the new book shelves.  But Carroll & Carroll organizes the whole bookstore like a used bookstore, with bookshelves stocked two-rows deep and piles stacked on floors and in corners.  There will be two new copies of Rebecca Makkai with a tattered Malamud sandwiched between.  And in this bookstore, that absolutely works.

Perhaps because of the nearby college, or more likely because of the fabulous, sharp, witty couple that owns this shop, there’s a pretty impressive selection of whip-smart literature.  A whole row of Doris Lessing, a shelf of Proust.

And then completely random and unexpected extras.  I wound up in a great conversation with the bookstore owner about a book on pencil sharpening that turns out to be as fascinating as it is unironic.  (So many significant daily inventions are perfectly designed for the jobs they do, but are not quite world-changing, we marveled.)

IMG_9239

The owners keep a wall of newsclippings about writers and books, mostly obituaries of great modern writers.  And it feels like a nice reminder of our shared enterprise, our community of writers and readers and booksellers.  A point of human connection with all the people who wrote the books we’re browsing.

Plus, for balance, some comics.

That’s what it feels like in this bookstore: that you’re discovering things every time you bend down over a bookpile or move the front row from a shelf.  Each time there’s something unexpected and delightful, engaging and challenging.

I really did have such a nice afternoon in Stroudsburg.  And just when I’d finished book browsing, I walked one block away and found this:

My week has been happily stocked with books and records ever since this trip.