Author, Books, Fiction

What does this say about me?

Three weeks ago, the lovely author Darlene Foster tagged me to receive The Booker Award. The rules of this award say I’m to list five of my favorite books and then pass the award on to five other people. At first I read that as my five favorite books, which seemed an impossible job, but then I saw that little word “of”. I can do that.

Since then, I’ve paused at my book shelves many times trying to make choices. My reading tastes have changed many times through the years, and I don’t own a copy of every book I’ve read, so it’s possible I’m forgetting books I would have chosen. I found myself looking at some books and realizing I didn’t remember reading them at all, though I know I did. I considered choosing books to impress the literati, but I hate snobbery. So here are five OF my favorite books—and even more, five writers I admire.

For many years, I read everything Stephen King wrote, except the Dark Tower Series. I’ve read some of his novels more than once, but The Stand is my favorite. I’ve read it four times, including the uncut version.

When I read the description of this book, chosen for my discussion group, I doubted I would care much for it. War stories? Nah. Silly me. Tim O’Brien’s writing amazed me, and The Things They Carried has been on my best books list ever since.

I’ve read all of Anne Tyler’s books, even the one she wrote for children, and I’ve read many more than once. The first time I read Breathing Lessons, the main character annoyed me. But she also haunted me. So I read it again, and then I realized that I’d been annoyed by her because she was a bit like me. 🙂

For many years, I also read Maeve Binchy’s novels. I drifted away a time or two and then came back and caught up. Now, she’s gone, and I feel I should catch up again. I believe Circle of Friends was the first of her books I read. I became an instant fan of her talent for drawing the reader into her rich fictional world.

I’m a late-comer to Sherman Alexie’s work. I’d heard the name for many years, but I knew him only for his screenplay for Smoke Signals. I can’t remember how I ended up with a copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but it sat in my to-read list for some time before I got around to reading it. Boy, was I sorry it took me so long. Alexie’s writing is magical. The voice in this book is one of the purest examples I’ve read. I’m now reading Blasphemy, his latest collection of short stories, and so far each one has blown me away.

I guess that’s an eclectic group of five, but that probably tells you something about me. Now I’m supposed to choose five people to pass the award to, but I rarely do that because often those I pick don’t care to play along. So if you’d like to share five of your favorite books on your blog, take the award and say I chose you. Or share on this page in the comments. I’d like to see your choices.

Author, Book Reviews, Craft, Fiction, Short story, Writing

How reading great fiction can be dangerous to your health!

No, as far as I know, fiction isn’t toxic to your body. My post title refers to your health as a writer, the health of your ego, your confidence. I have recently started reading two collections of short stories. One, I had read before, the other was recently published. I’ll give my thoughts on one today and the other next week. Although the major part of me is enjoying these books, another part of me wishes I had never opened them. I’ll get to that later.

By the 90s, I was reading more non-fiction than fiction. Then, several years ago, I joined a reading group and was introduced to some of the excellent books I’d missed, but when the leader announced our next selection would be a collection of Viet Nam war stories, I was less than thrilled. I bought a used paperback copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, sure I’d never want to reread it. How wrong I was. I became enthralled. The subject was familiar, of course, but O’Brien’s writing skill was not. He amazed me many times, as I read.

Several months ago, when I decided to reread the book, I discovered it wasn’t on my shelves. I never found it, and never got around to buying another copy until a couple weeks ago, when I bought the 20th anniversary edition in hardback. Now that I’m more actively writing, I appreciate O’Brien’s skill all the more. In the title story, he uses all the “tricks” of the craft to put you right there in the heat and the mud and the chaos and the blood. His words create the cadence of the march, the sounds and silence of the jungle, the fear of the young men trying to reconcile back home with the horror they live in now. He often gives the weights of the things they carried: the weapons, the gear, the letters and photos, the drugs, the food, but into these lists of things they carried, he slips the things that can’t be weighed by ounces, grams, or pounds.

Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often they carried each other, the wounded, or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.

About dealing with death all around them, he writes:

They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it.

They found jokes to tell.

They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness. Greased they’d say. Offed, lit up, zapped while zipping. It wasn’t cruelty, just stage presence. They were actors. When someone died, it wasn’t quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines mostly memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy the reality of death itself.

And he writes that at night, while on guard, they dreamed of being carried away.

They were flying. The weights fell off; there was nothing to bear. They laughed and held on tight, feeling the cold slap of wind and altitude, soaring, thinking It’s over, I’m gone!—they were naked, they were light and free—it was all lightness, bright and fast and bouyant, light as light, a helium buzz in the brain, a giddy bubbling in the lungs as they were taken up over the clouds and the war, beyond duty, beyond gravity and mortification, and global entanglements—Sin loi!, they yelled.

Okay, sorry, I’m getting carried away myself, but there’s good writing here. If you’d like to read the story, it’s online: The Things They Carried .

So, why did I say I wished I’d never opened this book again? Well, I’ve contracted a case of I-might-as-well-just-give-up-now-itis by reading both this and the other story collection.  Of course, I could assuage my ego by limiting myself to reading sideways—read only books that are no better written than I can write—but that won’t help me improve hone my craft. By reading up, I see what heights mere words can reach. The problem is, I also see how far down that mountain I am. I look at great writer’s work and think, Now, that’s writing!

And then I ask … so what is it I produce?

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