Tag Archives: literature

6 Best Books of 2013, According to Me

26 Dec

It’s that time of year when everyone’s doing their Best of 2013 lists, so I figured I’d add mine!

I know most people pick 5 or 10, but I picked 6. Why 6, you ask? For arbitrary reasons. Yes, I read more than 6 books this year. No, they weren’t all from 2013. And no, not every book that I read that was published in 2013 made this list. These just happen to be the very best of the books that I read that were published in 2013.

This isn’t a ranking, but rather a listing in a way that one theme flows into the next.

 

paradise

This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila

I saw this face-out on a shelf at Barnes & Noble, picked it up, and read the first few lines. The prose was exquisite. I’d nearly given up on fiction, frustrated at how it can be so overwritten yet simple at the same time. This was the type of writing I’d been missing in my life. The language is just gorgeous. I want to reread it already.

 

interestings

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

I had read Wolitzer’s The Wife in grad school and felt it was too heavy-handed, so I cautiously picked this one up after hearing the high praise for it, which almost always dooms a book for me. The Interestings deserves to be on every best of 2013 list. Not only are the story and the themes (the nature of love, the nature of friendships, family, jealousy, career, money, art, New York) thought-provoking on many levels, but the writing strikes that perfect balance of appearing both deliberate and breezy, literary yet conversationally authentic. It’s the type of book I want to now read reviews of and discuss with others, especially women artists.

 

LeanIn

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

I read this for my Scripps College book club, which is composed of alumni from a wide range of class years from the women’s college. We’re all at various stages of our careers, including stay-at-home moms, working moms with infants, moms whose children have flown the nest, recent grads who have just entered the workforce, and mid-career-level women in relationships and not. Some have Ph.D.s, others want to be yoga instructors. The resulting conversation we had about this book is that, in the end, you have to find out what works for you and that may change depending on where you are in your life.

I also happened to finally get around to reading a book a colleague had given to me a few years ago: Patty Azzarello’s Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work AND Like Your Life, which came out in 2010. While Sandberg’s book is chock-full of important statistics and food for thought, Azzarello’s, though perhaps not as carefully edited, offers tips that are actually practical for people in the workforce.

 

Print

A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

This book, the true story about a Canadian journalist and her Australian ex-boyfriend photographer who are kidnapped in Somalia, gave me nightmares. Literally. I became obsessed with the story, reading articles,  watching interviews with the people involved, and following them on Twitter. It got me thinking a lot about perceptions of the West, feminism, and ambition.

 

Manana

Manana Means Heaven by Tim Z. Hernandez

The publisher sent me this book, and I was a bit leery going into it that it would come off as fan fiction, but Hernandez’s Manana Means Heaven is an incredibly important book to the Beat canon. Through poetic diction, this novel tells the moving story of one of the little-known people who crossed paths with Jack Kerouac. It gives voice to a woman who didn’t even know she’d been written about decades earlier in On the Road.

You can read my interview with Tim here.

 

heart

My Heart Is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart

I’ve written about Davy Rothbart before, having encountered one of the stories in this book in The Paris Review and comparing him to Jack Kerouac and then going to see him read in Brooklyn, where I met his dad and pulled a sword out of his cohort. This book technically came out last year, but the paperback came out this year, and it is brilliant. I had to stifle my laughter quite a few times on the subway to keep people from staring at me as I read this book. The thing is, though, there’s a lot of heart in this book too. It’s more than just a bunch of stories that make your eyes bug with incredulity over the antics Rothbart gets himself in. It shows the tenderness and beauty and wonder of humanity in all its forms, from an aspiring DJ to a con-artist.

 

Tell me your favorite books of 2013 below in the comments section. I’m looking for some new reads, and I figure if you read my blog we probably have similar taste! …And by similar taste, that probably means all over the board.

 

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

 

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10 Books That Have Stuck with Me

17 Dec
gypsy
The other night I fell asleep thinking about the books that have stuck with me over the years. My friend had tagged me in a Facebook post about the ten books that have stuck with her—not necessarily the best books or her favorite books, but the ones that come to mind first. She then tagged me and nine other friends to do the same. I figured it would make for a fun blog post because some of the books may come as a surprise.
Without further ado…:
  1. Bread and Honey by Frank Asch
  2. Squiggly Wiggly’s Surprise by Arnold Shapiro
  3. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
  4. Gypsy Summer by Wilma Yeo
  5. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
  6. Sins of the Father by Eileen Franklin
  7. The Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
  8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  9. The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
  10. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
I could probably write a blog post for each of these titles on why they stuck with me! I could also add so many more books to the list.
There are a few things I’ll point out about the books that actually made the list, though. The first half of the list are children’s books, or perhaps YA. The first two, in fact, are children’s storybooks, but even today their message remains with me. Adult books have a lot more “grey” in them when it comes to morality and message, as we come to understand the complexities and nuances of life, but I think there’s something to be said for the simple and beautiful messages of children’s picture books.
The other thing I’ll point out is that the second half of the list was all read more than ten years ago. Actually, number 6 on the list I read in middle school, and the only book post-undergrad on the list is number 10. It’s obviously not that I haven’t read since then or that I haven’t read good books since then. In fact, I took fantastic literature classes while working toward my MFA and was exposed to books that shaped the way I think about literature and writing. It’s just that when I think of books that have really stuck with me over the years, I was thinking of books that have stood the test of time.
I tag you! What 10 books have stuck with you? Leave them in the comments below.

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Friday Links: Aristophanes Edition

13 Dec

swellfoot

Happy Friday! I’m wrapping up Aristophanes week with some link love devoted to this funny dramatist.

Lysistrata is a name featured on the Heritage Floor at The Dinner Party, at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum

Pablo Picasso was so inspired by Aristophanes’ Lysistrata that he made several prints related to it, on view at the Met

Artist Aubrey Beardsley, who is often inspired by literature, also created a print inspired by Aristophanes

Obviously, there’s Radiohead’s Cloud Cuckoo Land

Lisa Borders titled her book about a young female busker’s search for home Cloud Cuckoo Land

On Fernhill Farm in Somerset, there’s a festival called Cloud Cuckoo Land

Festivals may seem very post-Woodstock, but Aristophanes was part of a festival back in Ancient Athens, called Lenaia, where he actually won first prize for his play The Knights

There’s an international architecture journal called Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

In London there’s a delightful period-clothing shop called Cloud Cuckoo Land

Percy Bysshe Shelley (Gregory Corso’s favorite poet) imitated Aristophanes’ The Frogs in the comic drama Oedipus Tyrannus: Or, Swellfoot the Tyrrant

“Aristophanes is ridiculous!” shouted Oscar on an episode of The Odd Couple in which he and Felix are contestants on the game-show Password

 

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

How Many Stars Should a Book Get on Goodreads?

7 Aug

redpony

Yesterday I wrote about my experience on Goodreads. I think most people use it to write and read reviews of books, but truth be told I don’t do that. The only “review” I give is ranking a book through Goodreads’ star system, and I only do that because it seems sort of mandatory.

I actually feel a sense of anxiety in ranking books. I have very idiosyncratic tastes. I often read books that have gotten a lot of hype and dislike them. But give me a book that the general reading public finds “strange” or that “no one” has heard of and I smatter it with stars.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we all have different tastes and that a book can be worthwhile even if we didn’t enjoy it. I know that sounds strange, crazy even, but hear me out: I don’t particularly love the story of Hamlet (I mean, come on, it has a ghost in it), but the dialogue, structure, and literary techniques are genius, pure genius.

Also, tastes change over time. I didn’t like David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars the first time I read it. It was required summer reading when I was in high school, and I was decidedly not into love stories or books that heavily emphasized ethnicity issues, a topic my school focused on a lot. When I read it again in college, though, I was drawn into the story itself as if I were reading it for the first time. Sometimes I don’t even re-read a book and my opinion of it changes. I was looking over my Goodreads list and was surprised at how I’d rated some books. Books with three or four stars are the trickiest. I can really enjoy a book yet give it a lower ranking just because it’s not something I feel will stand the test of time or because it doesn’t have that extra little something. In contrast, sometimes I’ll give a book a slightly higher ranking than my gut reaction to it because it is a good book and I don’t want to discredit it even though in my mind there was something missing from it. See, this is why I should probably actually write reviews!

Anyway, here’s a bit of insight into the method of my ranking madness:

  • Five stars—the highest a book can get—are only for books that I feel have changed my life in some way, that are impressively written, and/or that I would reread. They’re the books I would own a copy of, have either marked up profusely or am careful to keep pristine, and would selfishly not lend out. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a book I gave five stars to. An eighteenth-century British novel, it still feels strikingly fresh and relevant to today’s postmodern literature. Read it. It’s wild.
  • Four stars are for books I enjoyed a lot and got absorbed in reading and would recommend to others. I would want to own a copy of the book. I gave J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye four stars, for example, because I recognize it’s a well-written, thoughtful book with deep implications for our culture but it didn’t really move me. I read it when I was a teenager and I read it again a year or two ago for my alumnae book club and my reaction was the same.
  • Three stars are for books that are good—good in the sense that they are solid reading for on the subway, on a plane, or at the beach. Maybe the story was appealing or maybe there was something interesting about the writing style that got me thinking. I’d pass the book along to my mom or a friend without wanting it back. A book like Ethan Hawke’s Ash Wednesday gets three stars. It met my expectations but didn’t blow me away.
  • Two stars are for books that somehow miss the mark for me personally. They’re for books I couldn’t get into, that tried too hard, that maybe had an interesting concept but failed to execute it properly, or that didn’t use interesting diction. Oftentimes they’re for books I was excited to read but weren’t worth the hype. They’re for books where I tend to feel cheated for some reason. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women gets two stars from me. I’d heard so much about this book I was really expecting it to be something special, but it was kinda a snooze fest. Sorry.
  • One star is for books that irritated me. John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony is an example of a book I only gave one star to. I read it back in high school and maybe I’d feel differently now but at the time I remember feeling tortured as I read it. (Conversely, I gave five stars to Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and Cannery Row.)

Do you think I’m too harsh? Too fickle? How do you rank books on Goodreads? Do you ever go back and change your ranking?

Happy NaNoWriMo Day!

1 Nov

Today is the start of NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month!

NaNoWriMo is touted as “thirty days and nights of literary abandon!”  The premise is simple.  On November 1, anyone interested in writing a novel begins a novel with the goal of completing the first draft by the end of the month.  More specifically:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing on November 1. The goal is to write a 50,000-word (approximately 175-page) novel by 11:59:59 PM on November 30.

Here’s how it works.  The novel has to be completely new, though you are allowed to write an outline before the official start of the month.

In addition to the writing goal itself, participants receive encouragement from the staff and from famous authors and can join in in a variety of meetups, virtual and in person.

I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo for a few years now without writing a single word toward a novel.  I’m interested in actually participating this year for a number of reasons.

Check in next week to find out why!

Are you signing up for NaNoWriMo?

Big Sur and the Best Laid Plans….

15 Oct

I just got back from a trip where everything seemed to go awry.

On my recent trip to San Francisco for a friend’s wedding, I had big plans to visit John Steinbeck’s Monterey, where Cannery Row is set, and Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, where he spent time in his friend poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin and the title of one of his books.  This idea, mind you, came after plans had already gone awry when I discovered none of my other friends were able to make it to the wedding or were flying in just in time for the wedding, leaving me with a few days to myself.  I’d been to San Francisco a few times and already done the big touristy things and the Beat literary things in the city (minus the Beat Museum, which wasn’t around the last time I was there–and which will have its own post coming up soon!), so I figured I’d take my literary wanderings a bit further south.

Steinbeck’s Cannery Row came out in 1945, two years before Kerouac made that first big trip out West.  Post-World War II, both Steinbeck and Kerouac spent time in the same area of California—Monterey, Big Sur, Salinas—and wrote about migrant workers, the working class, the down and out, absurd heroes.  Steinbeck writes of Cannery Row:

Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

Steinbeck’s message is very much Kerouac’s as well.  Kerouac writes about “the holy con-man with the shining mind” and other Beat characters whom society might consider derelicts but whom he considers saint-like.

I planned to do a close study of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and to reread Kerouac’s Big Sur to compare and contrast the places, characters, themes, and language.  Visiting a place can sometimes be the best form of research.  You see and hear things that aren’t in books, get a sense of proportion and distance, and see how the landscape has changed.  I wanted to see the land, to feel the sand between my toes, to have the salty ocean breeze whip through my hair, to smell the sardines.  I wanted to experience the rough terrain that so embodied Kerouac’s mind frame in Big Sur.

Unfortunately, a trip to Big Sur would not happen for me.  My plans went awry when I discovered that after Labor Day public transportation to Big Sur stopped running during the week and that the only tour that stops at Big Sur was sold out before I got to book it.  Discovering this two days before I was supposed to leave—okay, so they weren’t exactly “the best-laid plans…”—put a wrench in my itinerary.

Well, here’s my Pinterest inspiration board for Big Sur.

Here’s an article called “Steinbeck vs. Kerouac: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!” from Big Think.

And here’s an article from Monterey County Weekly on the film adaptation of Kerouac’s Big Sur.

I was, however, able to book a different tour that at least went to Monterey.  I had to get up super early–did I mention there were several conferences going on in San Francisco so the only hotel I could find within my budget was an hour away?–to get to the 9am bus.  I got there right on time, getting one of the few remaining seats in the very back of the bus, on the side that wouldn’t have a good view.  …Two hours later, we were still in San Francisco.  The bus was blowing hot air through the vents and overheating–not great for all the senior citizens on the trip (oh, did I not mention the demographic was ever-so-slightly older?).  They brought in mechanics, and when they failed to fix it, we eventually got a new bus.  About half the people on the tour were so mad that their precious vacation time was wasted that they refused to get on and left the tour completely.  The good news: I got a better seat.

Here are a few pictures from Salinas and Monterey.

John Steinbeck references the aphorism “the best-laid plans of mice and men often goes awry” in the title of one of his other books, Of Mice and Men.  The phrase can be traced back to Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley

Don’t you love that eighteenth-century Scottish English?  (One day I will have to describe my misadventures in Scotland too….)

One of the things I love best about On the Road is Jack Kerouac’s candor that trips often do go awry.  When Sal Paradise, the narrator based on Kerouac, starts his first big road trip from the East Coast to the West, he has grand plans of traveling one great highway all the way there.  That doesn’t work out—nor does he even get out of state before having to turn back and come home again.  He’d been trying to hitchhike his way out of New York City and ended up stranded in a torrential downpour in Bear Mountain, one of the places my own family frequented when I was growing up.  Not one to let problems rain on his parade, Paradise/Kerouac heads back to New York City and buys fare for public transportation that will take him to the first leg of his destination.

Sometimes you just gotta keep on truckin’!  It’s a good lesson for traveling and for life.

What’s the worst that has ever happened to you on your vacation?

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I’m reading tonight at 7pm at  The Penny Farthing (103 3rd Ave., downstairs in the speakeasy) here in New York City! This is a Storytellers event, hosted by C3.  I’ll be reading from Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Roadcoauthored with Paul Maher Jr.

10 Things You May Not Know about Jack Kerouac

27 Sep

Here are ten things you may not know about Jack Kerouac.

  1. His parents were French-Canadian immigrants, and he didn’t learn to speak English until he went to school.  It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he began feeling comfortable conversing in English.
  2. He was the baby of the family.  He had an older sister named Caroline (nicknamed “Nin”) and an older brother named Gerard, who died when he was just a boy.
  3. He was a Classicist.  He used to skip school just to go read the Classics in the library.
  4. He attended prep school.  Graduating a year early from high school, he had a scholarship lined up to attend Columbia University, but they required him to attend Horace Mann Preparatory School first.
  5. While in school, he wrote music reviews.  He also had a job as a sports writer for his hometown paper.
  6. He joined the US Navy and the US Merchant Marine.
  7. His go-to food while hitchhiking across the country was apple pie.
  8. His first book, The Town and the City, was published under the name John Kerouac.  When he drew the cover he envisioned for On the Road, he also wrote his name as John Kerouac.  His parents had given him the name Jean-Louis, and John was the closest Americanization of his name.
  9. His first marriage took place in prison.  He had been arrested as a material witness after his friend murdered a man who had been stalking him.  Kerouac’s girlfriend agreed to post bail if he married her.
  10. In addition to writing, he also was a painter.

Clip: On the Highway of Love, Jack Kerouac Divides Men and Women

16 Aug

The Millions published my essay “On the Highway of Love, Jack Kerouac Divides Men and Women.”

The article made the headline in the Page-Turner section of The New Yorker.

It also made it into the On the Shelf section of The Paris Review.

The article was mentioned in The Atlantic Wire.

Poets & Writers mentioned the article in their Daily News on 8/14/12 … and then again on 8/15/12 to note the response the article has gotten.

That second P&W write up was mentioning Slate‘s response.

Jezebel also devoted a whole article to my article.

Guy Librarian referenced the discussion.

The article was also mentioned on The Daily Beast.

The Huffington Post added commentary to the discussion.

8/19/12; 8/22/12: This post was updated to include additional mentions.

should i read on the road

13 Jul

Someone found my blog by typing in

“should i read on the road”

I hope they found the correct answer.

Clip: In the Bathtub with a Jazz Musician and a Beat Poet

29 Jun


 

Burnside posted an essay of mine called “In the Bathtub with a Jazz Musician and a Beat Poet.”  It’s a true story.