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Mid-Summer Reading 2014

Midway between June’s Summer Reading List, and sharing a new list of great books to read in the fall, this week it seemed a good time to post a Midsummer Reading update.  A little feedback on some of the novels I’ve read so far this summer, as well as those great discoveries of books I’ve added to my reading list.

Summer reading, ready to go. c. Elissa Field

Summer reading, ready to go. c. Elissa Field

Early Summer Reading

First, a little update on what I’ve read so far, from My Summer Reading List 2014 and a few carry-overs from My Reading List Winter 2014.

  • reading - long manAmy Greene’s Long Man (2014). I highly recommend this novel, which mixes an element of mystery and beautifully lyrical writing in unveiling the subtle secrets and loves of a small mountain village during building of a dam in their valley to introduce electricity and income during the Depression.
  • Khaled Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed (2013). Yet another insightful novel from author of The Kite Runner (2004) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2008). Although… it had a hard time competing against other reading favorites in the past month.
  • Erin Morgenstern, Night Circus (2011). I was slow to ‘discover’ this one, although readily captivated by the unique and mysterious community Erin creates — I loved this one and it makes my recommended reads.
  • Alice McDermott, Someone (September 2013). Actual sigh. I love Alice McDermott, and I also am familiar with her quietly powerful style. But I was so impatient the full first half of this novel. Tons of description of domestic detail (furnishings of rooms, mostly). There is a powerful, albeit subtle, payoff in the end, so I still recommend reading, but I don’t know that it is one of my favorites of hers. Beautifully written, just very quiet.
  • Celebrated first day of summer: reading by the pool. c Elissa Field, 2014

    Celebrated first day of summer: reading by the pool. c Elissa Field, 2014

    Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013). So far, my favorite read of the year (he catches a slight boost in that his writing structure and topic fit my writing mood at the moment). There’s such powerful accuracy in every sentence, with a masterfully balanced structure of varying timelines and points of view. I did a lot of underlining as I read. This one has had several nods for awards: long-listed, short-listed and awarded.  If you want details, I reviewed: Reading: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

  • Carol Rifka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home (2012).  This was another reading favorite. Beautifully told, it was most surprising for being a book so much about love without being about a romance between main characters: love between sisters, between uncle and niece, between a parent and the parent’s sibling… At all times, Brunt delivers authentic and new insights. It is particularly a fresh portrayal of homosexual partnership and the AIDS crisis of the 80’s. While not written as young adult fiction, it’s a book I would include in teen reading lists.

What I’m Reading Now

I just received delivery of a few of the books I couldn’t find in bricks and mortar stores, so am exciting to be reading these, this week:

  • Gae Polisner, The Summer of Letting Go (March 2014).  If you have a teen reader or read young adult literature, I really recommend this one. I was instantly pulled in by the endearing voice of the main character, who is stalking a beautiful neighbor, Nancy Drew-style, worried the woman has seduced her father. Sometimes subtle, sometimes bold, it is compelling, the weight this girl feels to hold her family together after her brother’s drowning. Beautifully written.
  • Colum McCann, Fishing the Sloe-Black River: Stories (1996).  This one was on my Summer Reading List 2013, but I’ve just now gotten ahold of it. Despite a factual detail that really undermined the plot of the first story, it’s so far delivering the voice I so admire McCann for, for its concise and subtle precision. He tends to be a favorite.
  • Colm Toibin, Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border (2001).  I’m still waiting for this one to arrive as it was hard to track down. Kudos to small booksellers (and my ability to find them through Amazon) for having just the book I was looking for.

Newly Added for Midsummer Reading

Here are a few books I’ve added to my reading list since June’s list.

  • Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird (March 2014). I first ran across Helen’s writing with a really strong short story in a literary magazine a few years back. I’d put Mr. Fox on my reading list, and was reminded of her when I came across Boy, Snow, Bird, her new release. I’ve heard great things from other reading friends.
  • Colin Barrett, Young Skins (January 2014). This short story collection was just recognized with the Frank O’Connor prize, and Barrett’s writing has been praised by writers I love, like Colm Toibin.

Carryovers from Prior Lists

Some of these have carried over from prior lists as I track them down. Each is highly recommended.

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How About You?

What are you reading, what would you recommend, or what books make you to be read list?  If this inspires you to blog your own list, share link to your post so we can come read with you.

Where do the book links take you?

For convenience, you can click book titles for their link at Amazon — or find them at your favorite indie bookseller through indiebound.org:

Shop Indie Bookstores

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Reading: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Celebrated first day of summer: reading by the pool. c Elissa Field, 2014

Celebrated first day of summer: reading by the pool. c Elissa Field, 2014

I’ve been very picky in reading this past spring — literally put down 7 out of 12 books, without finishing. But today I’m motivated to post the first book review I’ve shared on this site, because so bowled over by Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, Jan. 2013).

And the Winner Is…

I first picked this novel up when it began appearing on lists nominating it for various national and international book awards last year. Constellation won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award and the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction.  It was also nominated for the National Book Award in Fiction, and appeared on numerous best-reads lists, including the Goodreads Choice list.

anthony marraI was particularly intrigued because I “knew” Anthony from when he participated in a writer’s forum back when he was applying for a Stanford Stegner fellowship, years back. Constellation is Marra’s first novel. I shared this interest here before, when I included link to an interview with Marra by the New School in Friday Links for Writers: 02.21.14.

From this, what I knew of the book in advance was that it was intelligent and stark, with some risks taken in multiple narrative threads.

Stunning and Beautiful

What I found was an intelligent, sometimes poetic, emotionally powerful insight into individual lives of civilians during the wars in Chechnya. The simplest compliment I could give the novel was the point, midway through, when I found myself comparing the narrative impact of the writing to Tolstoy.

Marra’s writing is beautiful, brave, clean and with an unhurried confidence that left a nuanced and authentic portrayal of characters who were altogether new. As the novel opens, a young Chechen girl, Havaa, is watching her house burn, knowing her father has been disappeared. She is quickly spirited away by Akhmed, a close friend of her father’s, who takes on a job (as the worst physician in Chechnya) in Hospital No. 6 in order to convince the head doctor to hide the girl. As three more key characters are introduced, Marra weaves together histories and desires that reveal the personal losses and motivations that populate the lives of civilians in wartime.

Fascinated by Marra’s Narrative Structure

There is an idiosynchratic spirit to Constellations.  I’d heard it described as multiple stories woven together, but what he accomplishes is much more organic and unified than that.

Divisions of the novel are based on time. There are 28 chapters to the novel, grouped into parts that measure the five days after Dokka is disappeared. At the top of each chapter is a timeline band, highlighting the relevant years for that chapter. While the storyline progresses through the events after Dokka is taken, each chapter moves organically through the minds of the main characters and how the past 20 years of memories led each of the characters to the events of these 5 days. The complexity of the structure is pulled off beautifully.

Some risks are taken in the ways that Marra plays with voice, as the narrative fluctuates in varying degrees of 3rd person. The most basic structure is that each chapter begins with close 3rd on one of 5 main characters; line spacing mid-chapter usually then signals a shift to close 3rd from another main character’s pov. Frequently, however — particularly in traumatic encounters with other players in the war, such as arrival in the ER of a man whose leg was blasted apart by a landmine — narrative voice shifts to omniscience for 1-3 lines, revealing inner secrets, thoughts or future outcomes of this side character before returning to the main character’s pov.  The effect of this intrigues me, as it breaks a linear plane to create a wavery effect that is less godly than a shared-awareness that seems fitting in an environment where all predictable rules have dissolved.  What is impressive is Marra’s control, as pov shifts are accomplished without apology or need for awkward segues.  By visiting Havaa’s pov in the opening line, then Akhmed’s within the next line, Marra has effectively signaled that views will shift.

Lasting Impact

The concept of the novel is powerful. I was continually impressed at Marra’s ability to deliver with nuanced subtlety how each individual progresses through the insane or horrifying events of war (or warlike conditions and even torture in supposed peacetime). He manages to present the factual history in a manner that is seamless with the characters’ individual voices and storylines.

What is most powerful are the characters. While it is a novel revealing truisms of war, it is ultimately a novel about love and compassion and the warmly developed lives of characters in this small village. Each character is vivid, intriguing and their stories compelling.

Congrats to Anthony Marra for making my Top Reads of 2014.

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What Are You Reading?

I’m getting ready to post my Summer Reading List for 2014, which has me curious what everyone else is reading.  I’d love to hear your own reading suggestions in the comments.  Let us know the favorite books you’ve read this year or ones on your must-reads list.  If this inspires you to blog your own list, share link to your post so we can come read with you.

Where do the book links take you?

For convenience, you can click the book link to Marra’s book in the opening paragraph, which takes you to Amazon.  Or, you can find it at your favorite indie bookseller through indiebound.org:

Shop Indie Bookstores

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March Reading Challenge: The Books You Always Meant to Read

Shared by the Library of Congress, this poster is from a Chicago promotion 1936-1941. No known copyright restrictions.

Shared by the Library of Congress, this poster is from a Chicago promotion 1936-1941. No known copyright restrictions.

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One of my favorite books is Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

Except I don’t think I’ve ever actually read it. I love it because I loved To the Lighthouse. I loved the brave stubborn trust of Virginia Woolf’s sentences. I loved The Hours. I loved film adaptations of Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours.

That counts, right?

Not so much!

When I spotted the poster above — a vintage Chicago literacy promotion from 1936-41, shared by the Library of Congress — on Pinterest, I knew the March Challenge was on.

It’s time to challenge our reading resumes.

March is the month to read the books we’ve always meant to read.

Let’s kick this off, in proper spirit, with a shout out to McSweeney’s for sharing this post: “Feedback From James Joyce’s Submission of Ulysses to His Creative Writing Workshop.” Kudos to an imaginary beta reader brave enough to advise Joyce, “Think you accidentally stapled in something from your playwriting workshop for Ch. 15.”

No doubt, for many of us, Ulysses is poster child of a certain category of “books we’ve always meant to read.”

In my polldaddy survey (click this link to the survey ) over the past month, most readers indicated two reasons for a book they haven’t gotten around to reading:

  1. so many books, so little time – other books took priority; or
  2. the unread book was ominously challenging – like Ulysses.

I have 2 copies of Ulysses, including a completely annoted version, meant to explain all those vexing inside references. Still not sure I ever finished reading.

How About You — What books have you always meant to read?

My challenge this month is just to read Mrs Dalloway. Off to a great start: it’s in my reading stack. Next, if I finish that, might be IQ84.

And what about you?

Is there a book most kids read in high school, except you changed schools that year and missed it? Is there one (be honest…) you read Cliff’s Notes for instead of the real thing?

Is there a famous book you’ve seen several film adaptations of but never read the actual book? All those great Jane Austen flicks, but never read Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibilities? (My favorite is actually Persuasion.) Or Dracula or Frankenstein, or Anna Karenina, all of which lose their subtlety in film.

Or, just as likely, is there a guilty-pleasure book everyone else read and you never did? Bridget Jones? Harry Potter?

If It Helps Get You Thinking:

My books-I’ve-been-meaning-to-read fall into these categories:

  • classics or famous authors I’ve always meant to read: Brothers Karamozov, Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton or one of his older works, Updike.
  • books I’ve seen the movie of but wanted to read the book: Mrs. Dalloway, Life of Pi, The Help, Hunger Games.
  • new-ish books that had to wait in line when I bought other books: see My Winter Reading List for these.
  • books everyone else was talking about but I didn’t read: Swamplandia.
  • writers I love and want to read their newer work: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or Michael Ondaatje
  • the great wall of literary intimidation — one or two that seem like daunting reads, for their complexity or sheer size: Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 ; Ulysses; Middlemarch.

What is your obstacle to getting your book read?

Joining the Challenge:

Where? Post in the comments below to let us know the book or author that has always stumped you (and why, if that’s interesting). If you want, share this as a post on your blog (include link to this challenge), and then post the link to your blog in the comments so we can visit your site.

What? No rules about what the book should be. Maybe this is a great excuse for tackling a classic, but there’s no reason you can’t make it the month you read Gone Girl (because it’s your turn for a sleepless night) or Tiger’s Wife (because you didn’t really mean to fake it through the book club chat).

How many? The challenge is to read one, but it’s up to you if you want to read more, or even raise the bar and aim for one each week, or one each month for the rest of the year (honestly, how many books have you been avoiding?).

When? The goal is to post the title of the book you plan to read, then post again to say you’ve finished it by the end of the month. Then we all clink glasses, confetti falls, we cheer and books everywhere sigh.

Can I get fancy? If you want to get festive on your site, you can use the badge for this challenge, which was adapted from a poster in the Library of Congress.

Books You’re Allowed to Give Up On (We Say It’s Okay)

  • If it’s on your list because it’s “a book everyone is supposed to read,” consider why. If you write short stories and it’s a collection by an author whose work became the foundation of story writing, sure, give it a go. If it’s a classic of Southern Lit and you teach literature at Ole Miss, get on it. But if Dante’s Inferno or Madame Bovary aren’t your thing, we say you’re off the hook.
  • Is it a book you bought and never read? Free pass to be fickle: the fact it grabbed you in the aisles doesn’t mean you have to read it now.

This is the month to take on a book you’ve always meant to read.  Let us know what challenge you’ll take on!

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Friday Links for Writers 02.08.13

friday linksToday was a week where “other plans” intervened — a complete position change in my teaching post wiped me so “blank screen” that I even forgot I had jury duty to call for on Tuesday. I spent my week getting to know new students and sentimental over some great writing students in the class I gave up.

Sigh.

It made little time for fiction writing. But there’s always time for reading. Pinterest has become my stress reliever, and it’s just your luck that this leaves me stumbling on some great pieces.

Here are some of my favorites, which take us from revision to queries, and then to the joy of reading.  Enjoy!

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Home Improvement

As writing conference season approaches, I was reminded of the great things I’ve heard of author Benjamin Percy as a workshop leader. In this article, published in the May-June 2010 issue of Poets & Writers, Percy offers some brave advice about the daily work of revision.

Query Pitfalls

In response to readers who appreciated the link to agent Sara Megibow’s query twitter chats, here is link to a blog by literary agent Janet Reid. Janet is bluntly entertaining in evaluating just what steers a query wrong. This link goes to a most recent post, but the full series is available by clicking the categoy “query pitfalls.”

Query Shark

Want more query pitfalls? This site evaluates actual query letters blow-by-blow.

Everyday Miracles

Tin House runs a series on its blog called The Art of the Sentence in which authors take turns reflecting on the perfection of one single sentence that inspires them. In “Everyday Miracles,” Pamela Erens mulls how John Updike was trained first as a visual artist, wondering if this is what leaves his writing so intimately revealing. Wondering to myself: did I ever actually read Updike?

Shared by the Library of Congress, this poster is from a Chicago promotion 1936-1941. No known copyright restrictions.

Shared by the Library of Congress, this poster is from a Chicago promotion 1936-1941. No known copyright restrictions.

Perfect segue to say I am in the process of getting ready for a March Reading Challenge, which has me thinking about books we “always meant to read.”

Reading list survey for the March Challenge: Click here if you’d like to share the kinds of books currently lingering on your “to read” list.

Finalists for the Story Prize

The Story Prize is given annually to honor an outstanding collection of short stories. The link above takes you to announcement of the 3 finalists for collections published in 2012: Junot Diaz, Dan Chaon and Claire Vaye Watkins. Want more great collections? This link here takes you to The Story Prize blog, with an annotated long list of other great collections they considered.

100 Notable Books of 2012 & 100 Recommended Books of 2012

I’ve posted before, calling 2012 the Year of the Book. It really was a year of some fabulous reads. But where “top 10” lists and award lists tend to hit the same few books over and over, these two lists by the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle offer a more comprehensive range of the fabulous books published in 2012, in all genres.

Bookshelf Porn

If your eyes lit up at links for The Story Prize or {100 + 100} great books from 2012, they you’re probably in a category who would find photography of gorgeously shelved books satisfying. Kick back and enjoy yourself.

What did you find in these links that is useful to you? Let me know if you want more on a particular subject, or share your own best finds. Be sure to click through to the survey for the March Challenge, to share the kinds of books on your 2013 Reading List. I’d love to hear your current must-read titles!

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

Summer hours spent revising Wake. c. Elissa Field

Summer hours spent revising Wake. c. Elissa Field

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