Irene was an undisciplined reader and kept a mess of half-read books beside her bed, as well as on the coffee tables and in the bathrooms…She was a raucous, impertinent even disrespectful reader.”–Louise Erdrich, Shadow Tag
My selection criteria for this summer’s reading was “scientific”: Books by writers I’ve met and admire as people and artists. Books I found standing in the stacks at Powell’s. Books that help me as I write my own book. Books my husband saw at the library, thought I’d like, and brought home for me (because he’s just that kind of guy). These are listed in no particular order–kind of how they are piled beside my bed.
Shadow Tag (novel) by Louise Erdrich. I’ll read anything by Erdrich the minute it comes into my hands, even if it means I’ll be up all night. This spare, tense mystery has fewer of the flourishes and expansive timelines of her larger novels, but it drives at a faster, more perilous speed. It makes the questions she’s posing about living an authentic life hit harder. Every page brings a surprise.
Persian Girls (memoir) by Nahid Rachlin. Finished this one last night with my heart in my stomach. Nahid shared excerpts of her book on a recent visit to Pacific U. I was drawn into her thoughtful way of talking about how she writes and her desire with this memoir to vindicate her sister, who died a young woman in Iran. Nahid opens a window on girlhood in Iran and what is lost and gained by choosing to leave.
Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, a Sweet and Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuschia Dunlop. Recommended by fearless friend Betty, who lived in Chengdu when I did and loves food the way poets love poetry. Honest and delicious memoir.
Crying Tree (novel) by Naseem Rahka. I had the opportunity to read and respond to some of this book in early draft form. Naseem asks just how far compassion can go. Could you forgive someone who killed your child? I admire her courage to write a novel like this and her tight pacing and craft.
Dawn Light by Diane Ackerman. Early morning mediations with the trademark Ackerman layers of history, science and beauty. I’m halfway through and my mornings are better for it–and my own writing, too. Don’t want it to end.
The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun. I bought this in Chengdu in June at the beautiful independent bookstore there and fell in love with this new translation. He’s still one of China’s favorite authors and with good reason.
Torch (novel) by Cheryl Strayed. Discovered this at Powell’s. First chapter in and I’m awed by the way Strayed pays attention to how people are together. I’m also scared to keep reading because I can see she’s going to break my heart six ways from Sunday.
Making a Living While Making a Difference by Melissa Everett. How to be a social entrepreneur? How to help others and the planet and make enough to live on as well? I’m sold. I’m reading this for my students as much as for myself.
The Lonely Polygamist (novel) by Brady Udall. I shelled out the dough for this pricey hardcover at Powell’s because I was sick of writers I know telling me this was the best book ever. I read it in two days. It is the best book, ever. I laughed like a hyena during the first chapter and felt tears of sadness seeping out of my eyes midway. Even better: Reading it helped me fix a problem in the opening of the book I’m writing. My husband is reading this book right now, because I told him it is the best book, ever.
Crazy Love (stories) by Leslie What. Written by one of the most unpredictable women I know. These are funny, wild, weird stories that make me look at other people and wonder what they are up to. Opening sentence of one story: “It was that time of the month again when Agatha was about to go animal and there wasn’t a damn thing Helen could do, except wait for it to be over.”
The Happiness Project (nonfiction) by Gretchen Rubin. I don’t know if I picked this book because of the content or because it was a number one bestseller, which must make Rubin very happy. I’m reading it so I can get happy, too. Hope it works.
Leaving India (nonfiction) by Minal Hajratwala. I got to be part of deep, interesting conversations with Minal at the Hedgebrook Residency on Whidbey Island in Washington before I got my hands on this book. Minal is an expansive thinker, artist and overall fine person to have in this world. She makes me want to be a better person and accept myself for who I am at the same time. This wise book is like her.
Half the Sky (nonfiction) by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn. Kristoff and Wudunn argue that sex trafficking and poor maternal health are the international moral issues we need to confront. Dark stuff, except their “can do” attitude is reinforced effectively with case after case of women leaders who have pulled themselves out of these pits of despair in order to help others. And, yes, you can donate.
Lake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town’s Toxic Legacy (nonfiction) by Nancy Nichols. A journalist speaks out about the death of her sister from what she argues–very convincingly–was environmentally induced cancer. I read this with a combination of panic and gratitude as a Michigan girl who loves the lakes and grew up in a factory part of town.
Seven Taoist Masters, A Folk Novel of China, by Anonymous and translated by Eva Wong. Found this in the excellent fiction section of my local Goodwill and am wowed by the personality of this story and its glimpse into ancient China. What is necessary to reach enlightenment? It aint easy. I like the down to earth struggles and questions of these 6 guys and 1 woman. The biggest question and hardest to answer: What is compassion?
In Dependence (novel) by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. An international love story written by one of the most vibrant writers and thinkers I know. It was exciting to be included in Sarah’s creative process during the residency at Hedgebrook. Her brainstorming sessions were inspired and inspiring.
My Best Stories by Alice Munro. I read these one each night before I go to sleep. It’s a thick book, and I get a charge out of knowing Munro made these selections herself. My hope is that while I sleep the rhythm of her sentences will root into my brain and show up in my own writing the next morning.
Camel Bookmobile (novel) by Masha Hamilton. Can you turn a real altruistic effort–in this case a nonprofit to bring books to readers in villages in remote Africa–into a novel? I’m fascinated with how Hamilton shapes this story.
Tales from Ovid translated by Ted Hughes. Stories in poems. Everyone and everything in these stories transforms; each line is an elegant reminder of the devastation required in any metamorphosis. Male gods pursue and bring down female after female. Rather than be destroyed, these women and goddesses free themselves by shedding their bodies to become trees, water and other forms too expansive to be imprisoned or defined. I’m hooked.