Category Archives: Reading

Five months, 12 books and the security they provide

A Nissan Altima can only hold so much. And the average 35-year-old American woman probably owns more than that sedan’s capacity.

I know I do. Packing to move to Colorado presented a challenge: I didn’t know how long I’d live with my best friends before I found my own space. I needed to prepare for a change of season–perhaps seasons–and leave room in the car for me, my father and my two orange cats.

I reduced my belongings, selling some and donating others. I boxed up the rooms of my house, sorting them into a storage pile and a move-right-away pile. As I did, I faced one of the most challenging questions of the move:

Which books should I bring with me?

Heather, the aforementioned roommate, said my room had plenty of space. I should bring as many books as I wanted! But that wasn’t the issue, I reminded her. The challenge was not overfilling my car’s 116 cubic feet of space.

Some argue the books we buy say as much about us as the books we read. I don’t know if that’s true, but surely the books I packed (and the books I later acquired) reveal something of who I am. I settled on a 12-book limit; if I read them all (because I’m so good at limiting myself to what I already own, right?), I could visit the library or Book Train and replenish.

I read only one of those 12 books.

I slept with “Looking for Alaska” beside me the night I learned my sister died. It’s one of my comfort books, a go-to novel for whatever emotion I experience. But when I was ready to read, I turned instead to Joan Didion. “The Year of Magical Thinking” mirrored my experience, in some way, as Didion worked to understand the new shape of her life.

I bought many more books during the four-and-a-half months my bookcases and I were apart. I visited the library–conveniently located just behind my office–more times than I could count. I developed a habit of visiting my local bookstore when in mourning. And though my reading time now competes with my outside time, I’ve spent many hours with my nose between hundreds of pages.

Now I’m again faced with the 260-plus books I own but haven’t yet read, not just the nine in that cross-country dozen. It’s comforting to be surrounded by these friends, old and new. But I look back over this list and wonder, perhaps there’s something calling me to them, now, after all.

  1. Looking for Alaska by John Green
  2. Page One: Inside the New York Times and the Future of Journalism by David Folkenflick
  3. Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden
  4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger
  5. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
  6. The Science of Yoga by William J. Broad
  7. My Kind of Place by Susan Orlean
  8. Love Illuminated by Daniel Jones
  9. The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild
  10. Between the World and Me by Ta-nehisi Coates
  11. My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossell
  12. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Yeah, and OK, I also ended up with a couple of books as gifts or books that I didn’t mean to bring just yet, but had to because I forgot to pack them. Best-laid plans and all.

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We all have stories, and I believe yours matters

“Morris liked to share the books with others. Sometimes it was a favorite that everyone loved, and other times he found a lonely little volume whose tale was seldom told. ‘Everyone’s story matters,’ said Morris. And all the books agreed.”

I read “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” to my Avondale Elementary students during my final visit of the year. Once a week since October, I’ve visited them to encourage a love of reading. After the week’s book, I would distribute prizes–books!–earned by reading and completing a report on a book from their Better Basics-provided classroom library.

Two days after that classroom visit, I was to speak to a group of creatives about story at Birmingham Creative Roundtable. A light bulb went off: I should begin my talk with William Joyce’s book.

I’m passionate about story. That may be an obvious statement from a writer, but let me elaborate. I believe storytelling goes beyond the written word, beyond an oral tale. It shows up in nearly every aspect of life. Whether they were in photography, web design, branding, coffee or some other area, I told these creatives, storytelling is part of their work.

You can watch that talk in the video above, and work through your own story with guidance from this handout.

The event also motivated me to retell my own story. I focus more of my energy on telling those of others, and the about page of this site had become woefully out of date. I chose a career in writing as a child, and my motivations have been shaped by experience. (You can read more about that here.) Life as a storyteller is a step-by-step journey, and I hope my walk doesn’t end until I reach my grave.

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Contemplating “The Geography of You and Me”

Nearly three years ago, I responded to a post in a Facebook group from a woman seeking a copy editor for her memoir. Although I didn’t yet know this woman, I knew of her; Amy Bickers and I had several friends in common and I read her riotously funny blog, Vodka Cranberry Clooney. I jumped at the chance to edit her book, largely because I badly wanted to read it.

I knew it wouldn’t be an easy story. Amy’s memoir is an account of witnessing her ex-husband’s suicide and how she processed the darkness that followed. She writes beautifully, powerfully about mental illness, addiction and the sorrow of those left behind. Although the subject matter is dark, the book is ultimately hopeful.

Since she entrusted me with her words, I’ve been convinced that Amy must share her story with the world. Many agents said kind things, but ultimately passed on it because they believed the subject matter would be hard to sell.

At last, Amy has taken matters into her own hands.

Today she launched a Kickstarter to fund “The Geography of You and Me,” which was the best book I read in 2012. In fewer than 24 hours, Amy is $246 from her funding goal.

Let’s push her over the top. (Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to see this project funded in less than a day?)

Amy has written beautifully on the campaign page about what you’ll find in the book and why it matters. I encourage you to spend some time with her words. But I also urge you to consider this: Reading someone else’s story helps us better understand the world. That’s why I believe “The Geography of You and Me” must be published. Regardless of whether you see yourself or someone you know in this story, I believe it offers valuable insight into an all-too-common struggle. Understanding one another helps us embrace our humanity.

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Am I what I read?

In “The Polysyllabic Spree,” Nick Hornby writes, “All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. … But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”

It’s an arguable point, but one I identified with immediately. My bookcases are stuffed to overflowing with books I haven’t yet read, and I’m always acquiring more. I’m admittedly, unabashedly a book hoarder.

Sometimes those piles of books paralyze me. I’m so excited by the choices that I can’t decide what to read next. That’s been the case quite often in recent months, and even more so since I returned from Book Expo America; a tidy pile of advance reader copies now lines one wall of my bedroom.

It’s not just that I can’t decide what to read first. If only things were so simple! I’ve also run out of space in which to store all of these books. I have books in my living room, books in my kitchen. I’d store books in my bathroom if there were only a bit more space. I tuck books into the nooks of my secretary-style desk, and I pile books artfully on the shelves of end tables.

There’s a method to my madness, with genres sorted by room and shelves. But my bedroom is now out of control. The bookcase holds Alabama books and writing books, and my most treasured books top my dresser. But I’ve got borrowed books tucked beneath the head of my bed, and books I intend to mail to my nephew at the foot. (Books meant to be mailed to Mom are in the backseat of my car, because who needs logic?) Recent acquisitions were perched atop and nestled beside my typewriter, but that space has overflowed. Now, they’re stacked between my dresser and the wall and, as I’ve mentioned, lining one wall of my room.

I know it’s a bit crazy, but I’ve made my peace with the disarray. If it’s good enough for Nick Hornby, it’s good enough for me.

These are the books I’ve acquired in the six weeks since and including BEA.

  1. Dangerous by Susan Fast
  2. The Objects of Her Affection by Sonya Cobb
  3. Straight White Male by John Niven
  4. Liberty’s Torch by Elizabeth Mitchell
  5. The Walled City by Ryan Graudin
  6. What Do You Do with An Idea? by Kobi Yamada (Read it, loved it, glad he gave me a copy for my nephew, too.)
  7. On Immunity by Eula Biss
  8. Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talleh
  9. We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
  10. Neverhome by Laird Hunt
  11. King Dork Approximately by Frank Portman
  12. The David Foster Wallace Reader
  13. Reunion by Hannah Pittard
  14. The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar
  15. The Great Escape by Andrew Steinmetz
  16. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  17. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
  18. Epilogue by Will Boast
  19. Letters to a Birmingham Jail
  20. Soldier of Change by Stephen Snyder-Hill
  21. File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snickett
  22. Chakra Meditation by Swami Sadadananda
  23. Mo’s Mustache by Ben Clanton (Read and ready to send to my little nephew!)
  24. Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
  25. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
  26. So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan
  27. Terminal City by Linda Fairstein (Picked up for my aunt, still sitting in my bedroom. Oops.)
  28. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
  29. Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow
  30. The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi
  31. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
  32. Goodnight June by Sarah Jio
  33. Wild Idea: Buffalo & Family in a Difficult Land by Dan O’Brien (I actually had to leave my copy at BEA because I couldn’t carry any more books, but I re-acquired it at Church Street’s Book Hangout last week. Hurrah!)
  34. The Elements of Style Illustrated by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (Purchased at The Strand)
  35. Writers on Writing (Purchased at The Strand)
  36. Love, Loss and What I Wore by Nora and Delia Ephron (Purchased at The Strand)
  37. Only As Good As Your Word by Susan Shapiro (Purchased at The Strand; this was the one book I bought that I didn’t set out to find. What a happy surprise! I have enjoyed Susan Shapiro’s work in the past, and while on the flight to New York I read a Writer’s Digest article that mentioned her.)
  38. Still Writing by Dani Shapiro (Purchased at The Strand)
  39. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (I found this in a freebie pile at the office–we receive more books than we can possibly write anything about–and snagged it because the commercials for the new HBO show had been creeping me out. I’m about halfway through and intrigued.)
  40. Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers (Also found in the freebie pile in the office. I’m intrigued by Eggers and I would, of course, like to have a career in which I too can write across a variety of genres and find success.)
  41. My Conference Can Beat Your Conference by Paul Finebaum (SEC! SEC! SEC!)
  42. The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson (A library book, but one I’m likely to end up purchasing for myself.)
  43. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone (Also a library book, but worth mentioning.)

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Interviewing one of my literary role models

still lifeRegardless of the field in which you work, you’ve probably identified a role model or two. It may be your boss (lucky you!), a beloved professor, a family friend or a star in the field.

One of mine is Anna Quindlen. Her nonfiction work for the New York Times and Newsweek and the resulting collection of columns paint a portrait of a smart, informed woman who uses her pen to engage the world around her. Quindlen is award winning—she received a Pulitzer in 1992 for her Times column “Public and Private”—but she’s not exclusively a “career woman.” She’s also a mom and a wife whose family seem to be at the heart of her world, judging by the way she writes about them in her columns and book dedications. (As I recently finished “Rise and Shine”—one of the few Anna Quindlen books I hadn’t read—I marveled at the dedication to her daughter Maria. “Fearless, powerful, utterly amazing. I want to be you when I grow up.”)

I’m a fairly young woman and a journalist, but I also love essays (“How Reading Changed My Life” was my introduction to Quindlen’s work) and fiction. I’m fortunately surrounded by people whose paths show me that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for life as a woman, whether you stay at home with children or work an office job—or something in between. And I’m also lucky to have the careers of such women as Quindlen and Nora Ephron for inspiration.

So when I persuaded my editor at BookPage to let me send a few questions Quindlen’s way on the occasion of her latest novel’s publication, one of the first things I asked was about her own female role models. You can read how she answered–as well as the rest of our discussion–at BookPage.com, and you can read my review of “Still Life with Bread Crumbs” in the February issue of BookPage. (The book was published today, and it’s my favorite Quindlen novel yet.)

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So, I did this today.

I’ve published 542 posts on this blog over the course of 10-and-a-half years (this entry will make No. 543). That’s a lot of creative output, especially for a hobby, and I’ve long wished for an aesthetically pleasing way to capture those words in print. Years ago, I kept a running Word Document with those entries, and I periodically printed and clipped them into a three-ring binder. That worked OK, but it wasn’t precisely what I was after.

Last month I learned my daydreams could be fulfilled by the Espresso Book Machine. I received a press release announcing that a local Books-A-Million would install an EBM, which allows for on-demand printing of a variety of books as well as self-publishing options. My interest was piqued, and after I told her I wanted an excuse to use the machine, the publicist for the launch party suggested I print a copy of my blog.

Genius!

Today, that dream became reality. I spent about an hour at the bookstore, working with the technician to ensure that my PDFs met specifications and then watching my book being printed. It was a remarkably simple process, although I must confess I had a few advantages. One, I work in publishing, and so I was already familiar with the process of setting up a PDF. Two, my sister is a photographer and was willing to design the cover for me. (I promise you, it wouldn’t look nearly as professional if I’d taken the project into my own hands!)

I spent a week fussing over the pages, determining which entries to include and which to leave out. (Ultimately, I went for a near-completionist approach. I omitted a few password-protected entries for which I no longer recall the password and a few memes.) I decided to use the font this blog theme utilizes, and then I decided which photos to leave in and which to delete. I wrote an about-the-author blurb (awkward!) and told Cheryl what I hoped to have on the cover. And then I dumped my files onto a USB drive and took them to Books-A-Million.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTE0JphrAng&w=420&h=315]

The final project cost about $39–$20 for the set up and $16 for the printing, plus sales tax. I decided to make this a one-time-only run; while I was eager to hold my blog in printed form, I have no interest in distributing it to others.

And I’ve got to say, it was worth it. I giggled with delight when the book came off the press, and I’ll be working on excuses to use this device again.

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You can live it up, live it up all over town

I posted this on Facebook earlier today, but I thought it merited repeating.

Libraries and E-Lending: The ‘Wild West’ of Digital Licensing?

I’m newly interested in ebooks, but this story stood out to me for another important reason: Earlier this week, a friend emailed after listening to this piece and expressed her concern about the future of libraries. Could libraries become ebook services more than physical locations? What would that mean for literacy? She asked for recommendations on how she can support our local libraries, and I suggested joining Friends groups (I’m a friend of Birmingham Public Library and Emmet O’Neal Library), volunteering, serving on library boards (I’m on BPL’s YP board) and donating. I’m honored to serve my local libraries in these capacities, and I hope that you, too, will read and support whatever matters most to you.

Today’s subject line comes from Escape Club’s “Wild Wild West.” Because why not?

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The Straightener

I don’t know much about poetry. (OK, there’s a lot I don’t know much about.) But at some point during my tenure at the Cullman Times, I stumbled across an interview with former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and it resonated with me. Though I didn’t read even a line of his work for years, I copied a few sentences of that interview and taped them to my computer monitor as motivation. Though I’m on my third job since that time, I’ve carried that paper with me from office to office.

“The real thrill is composition. To be kind of down on your hands and knees with the language at really close range in the midst of a poem that is carrying you in some direction that you can’t foresee… It’s that sense of ongoing discovery that makes composition really thrilling and that’s the pleasure and that’s why I write.”

Years later, I learned that Collins was coming to speak in Birmingham as I edited an article about the event. Finally, I began reading the words he labors over. I attended his reading a few months later, and was overwhelmed by the range of emotion his work invokes.

Tonight I’m sitting at a bar, solo, because the friend I was supposed to meet got caught at work. No problem; I had the newest Collins collection in my purse. And as I read the second poem, “The Straightener,” Collins again cut through the every day and pricked my heart.

“Today, for example, I will devote my time
to lining up my shoes in the closet,
pair by pair in chronological order

and lining up my shirts on the rack by color
to put off having to tell you, dear,
what I really think and what I now am bound to do.”

I don’t know much about poetry, but I know I recognized myself in that.

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I closed my eyes, I kept on swimming

My reading habits are a reflection of my interior life. An average year sees 80-plus books pass through it. But the past few years have been busier, more exhausting than usual. Where I normally begin reading as soon as I get home, and spend an hour or so with a book before sleep, I’ve found myself returning home later and too often so exhausted that I need someone to tell me a story rather than engaging it myself. (Thank God for This American Life and The Moth.)

And so, recent years have been down years for reading. In 2009, I read 62 books. With seven days to go, I’m only at 50 books for this year.

As we enter the last week of 2010, I’m reflecting on the 12 months that are drawing to an end and dreaming about what I hope to accomplish in the 12 ahead. Invariably, that look back includes a variety of lists: the concerts I attended, the funniest things people said, the books I’ve read, my favorite albums of the year. And though earlier this week I spent two hours on a blog entry about those albums (to be posted Dec. 31 on Birmingham Box Set), I’ve never made a list of the books I most enjoyed.

I read fewer books this year, but I revisited some great ones. Songbook by Nick Hornby, Here is New York by E.B. White, Looking for Alaska by John Green, When Harry Met Sally by Nora Ephron and See You in a Hundred Years by Logan Ward kept me company this fall. (I can’t tell you why–because I don’t know–but I particularly craved the company of familiar pages during the autumn.)

Three of the best books I read for the first time in 2010 came with similarly strong recommendations, at the hands of friends and family. I deliberated over which Billy Collins collection to purchase when he read at Hoover Library’s Southern Voices conference in February. I’d just finished Ballistics and The Trouble with Poetry, both of which I’d borrowed from the library, but felt I needed to own one of his books as a memento of the reading. (If you don’t think a poetry reading can bring you near to tears and make you laugh, you haven’t heard Collins.) My friend and book columnist Susan Swagler recommended Sailing Alone Around the Room. Collins’ carefully worded observations on everyday life kept me company for the better part of the year. Several of my favorite poems filled the final pages, which made this especially satisfying to complete.

The problem with slim books is sometimes they’re finished all too quickly, and that was the case with How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen. I read this essay collection during the day after my birthday party, where I received it as a gift from the Donlon family. It immediately found a place on the shelf among my favorite, most-trusted books. It will be a book I turn to time and again, and I loved it so much that I gave my mother a copy for Christmas.

My sister gave me a copy of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose, because she wanted to know what I thought of it. Roose left Brown University for a semester to attend Liberty University, one of America’s most conservative Christian colleges. Though my college experience was in many ways different from what Roose experienced at Liberty–I attended Florida State, after all–some of his encounters reminded me of my own campus ministry experiences. Roose’s conclusions weren’t revolutionary. He learned that Liberty kids struggle with many of the same challenges as his friends back at Brown, and Roose found himself enjoying prayer so much that he continued the ritual when he returned to Brown. But those lessons were revolutionary to him. I’ve often wished I could tell my college-age self to take a more complete view of herself (primarily) and those around her. It seems that’s exactly what Roose’s experiment taught him.

William Zinsser’s account of his writing life was a simple pleasure. But it affected me so strongly that as soon as I completed Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher, I took out pen and paper and wrote him a thank-you note. (Perhaps because I hope to have so many stories to tell after a long career doing the same?) I was delighted, though not surprised, when a reply arrived in my mailbox weeks later.

I am surprised, however, to realize only one novel found its way to the books I most enjoyed in 2010. An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin is a compelling depiction of New York’s art world, as seen through the experiences of a young art dealer and her art writer friend. Martin writes beautifully of the paintings and art objects that populate the story, and the plot itself was so engrossing that it made me late to work the morning I finished. I only had 20 pages to go, and I just had to complete them. It had been a long time since a book made me tardy.

Although the powers-that-be may prefer that I arrive at the office promptly at 8 a.m., I hope 2011 brings many more books that make me struggle to leave the house. I hope 2011 brings many more books, period. My to-read list grows and grows.

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The weight of words

Reading material is piled on my bed, and the stack seems to have grown each day this week. It’s that time of month, I suppose, as new magazines account for nearly half of my to-read-nowish list. Esquire arrived yesterday, I picked up New York magazine’s Reasons to Love New York issue earlier this week and the Oxford American’s Southern music issue takes time to digest. I’m also overwhelmed by books: a collection of essays sent by a friend, a chef’s memoir, Flannery O’Connor nonfiction that I have been dipping into at a leisurely pace.

I know how I’ll spend my Christmas vacation.

I spent this morning discussing the value of words with a dear friend. Beginning next month, Cory and I will lead a writing and letterpress printing workshop, which we’ve titled The Weight of Words. The eighth-grade girls in the workshop will write essays of belief, and we’ll end the workshop by letterpressing small posters of their six-word thesis statements.

Cory and I are letterpress aficionados (she’s a printer, I’m a collector of sorts), and we were both drawn to the art form in part because of the literal weight it gives to words. Even if you don’t ink the press’ rollers, this form of relief printing leaves a mark on the paper. The care required to set the type and the impression it makes on the paper are an appropriate homage to the written word.

We left our planning session energized, eager to share our love of art and writing with these young girls. And as I continue to plow through my ever-growing stack of reading material, I’m grateful that others share their words with me.

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