the TBR shelves: a lifestyle

Friends, I am a full-time reader-writer these days, having moved cross-country and left my day job behind. I read & review books & do author interviews for a living, and pursue my own, creative writing where I can. Let me repeat: I read books for a living.

I’ve written about this before, but I say again, I read for lots of reasons. I read for work, obviously, and am happy that what I get to read for work is mostly stuff I’m really interested in. But I also want to read all the good creative nonfiction and memoir out there, to train myself on it; I want to read all the good writing about sense of place, and people’s relationship to place; I want to catch up on everything ever written by Hemingway, Abbey, Maclean, and Dillard; I want to read more Stegner and Snyder. For fun I’d definitely spend more time with King and Burke. I want to read all the books on this and other lists. There are always more classics on my wish list – Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Nabokov. I’m sure I’m forgetting all sorts of things, too.

Unsurprisingly, then, I’ve also got a couple of shelves devoted to books I already own and hope to someday find time for. Sometimes I weed these. When we moved from Houston to Bellingham, I was pretty ruthless; but I still moved probably 50 or 60 “to-be-read” (or TBR) books. Where do they come from?? I was just wondering this, so here’s a blog post.

My TBR shelves, in pictures (click to enlarge):
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These are recommendations (and gifts – Fil) from friends, on cycling and nature and Texas and Mexico; biographies of Melvil Dewey, Howard Hughes, and Zelda Fitgerald (if there’s a theme there, it might be mental illness); nature writing, much of it recommended by other nature writers; a hefty pile of Sharon Kay Penman; and several galleys I missed the chance to review for Shelf Awareness, but still hope to read (a smokejumper’s memoir; a readalike for Gus Lee’s Honor and Duty). Books about writing, or books that showcase the kind of writing I aspire to. There’s a different edition of A Sand County Almanac, from my dad. They’ve come from the discards pile at libraries I’ve worked at, as gifts, as galleys from publishers, and more than I like to admit I’ve bought and paid for, and may never find time to read. I’ve read 80-something books this year, and 18 of them were purely my choice, unassigned. I already quit my day job. What gives?

The Neighborhood Playhouse presents The Little Prince

little princeThe Little Prince is a magical tale, and I was immediately sold on the idea of a local production, performed by young people no less. The Neighborhood Playhouse Summer Drama Camp culminated in this production after less than two weeks; the ability of these teens to stand up with confidence and memorized lines after such brief prep is impressive enough, even if the play hadn’t been beautifully and feelingly done, which it was. Wow.

This was a musical production, and as I said about The Drowsy Chaperone, there were moments of less than perfect polish: these actors (whether youth or adult) are not professionals. But that’s okay! In fact, like when I go to watch college or adult-league sports, it’s part of the charm: I can see that these are “just” real people, like me, pursuing a passion. And I’m not criticizing. The level of performance here was very high – just not Broadway.

There were several very strong singers up there, especially the young lady who played the flower, but they all played their parts well. I felt the magic of St. Exupery’s original work, as these young actors communicated all the emotion of the pilot – his frustration, his regrets – and the prince, whose innocence is part of his appeal. I felt happy and lucky to be in the small audience. Thank you, Neighborhood Playhouse, and to the kids: bravo.


Rating: 7 snakebites.

best of 2015, to date

I’ve had several requests lately for recommended reads, and I always try to have those ready for my friends & readers! As you know, I’ll always do an end-of-year best-of list, but maybe it’s time for an interim selection. Not all of these will make the final 2015 list, I’m sure, but some will: my first entry is still the only 10 rating I’ve given this year. Now with a few annotations… click the links for the full review, and in the cases where it hasn’t yet posted, I’ll do my best to come back and add those links when they become available.

This is a fairly varied list, which I always feel good about: something for everyone, I hope.

Best of 2015 to date! Thanks for caring, y’all.

  • Martin Marten, Brian Doyle – fiction. A novel of two young creatures, a boy and a marten, showcasing outrageously fine writing and a unique sensitivity to the fact that we humans are not the only ones living and breathing on this planet.
  • Of Things Gone Astray, Janina Matthewson – fiction. A whimsical novel of lost things and what they mean, and the stories of the people who lose them, and sometimes find them again.
  • Travels in Vermeer, Michael White – nonfiction. A lyrical memoir of recovery and art appreciation; the best writing about the visual arts that I’ve encountered.
  • Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin – nonfiction. Memoir of a young female carpenter, about everything entailed in that life, and the balance between the mental and the physical.
  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander – nonfiction. Memoir of loss of a beloved husband by an excellent poet; lovely glimpses of global cultures.
  • Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott – nonfiction. Writing advice and wit from a respected mind, with a fun and singular voice.
  • Mislaid, Nell Zink – fiction. Quirky novel of mixed-up relationships with a strong sense of place (set in the South).
  • Wondering Who You Are, Sonya Lea – nonfiction. Memoir of a spouse’s traumatic brain injury: sex, love, art, identity.
  • Station Eleven*, Emily St. John Mandel – fiction. Imaginative post-apocalyptic novel of a traveling symphony and Shakespeare theatre company in a changed United States. Emphasis on character and story rather than sensationalism of collapse.
  • Old Heart, Peter Ferry – fiction. Brief, sweet, feeling novel of old age and end-of-life autonomy with impulses toward romance, but not an idealized version.
  • The Elements of Style, Strunk & White – nonfiction. Still an outstanding style guide, and surprising funny, enjoyable reading.
  • The Anger Meridian, Kaylie Jones – fiction. Novel of a traumatized widow seeking direction in vividly evoked San Miguel de Allende, with a little puzzle for the reader to work out.
  • Coming of Age at the End of Days, Alice LaPlante – fiction. Somewhat distressing, compelling novel well summarized by its title.
  • The Writing Life*, Annie Dillard – nonfiction. Lovely essays about Dillard’s writing life: glimpses into places and experiences and challenges.
  • South Toward Home, Margaret Eby – nonfiction. A review of one Alabama woman’s literary icons that resonated especially with me.
  • Dakota, Kathleen Norris – nonfiction. Lovely evocations of sense of place in essay form.
  • My Southern Journey, Rick Bragg – nonfiction. Funny, moving, evocative, beautifully crafted, very short true stories from the Deep South.

(* are audiobooks.)

Honorable mention goes as well to Paul Kingsnorth’s singular debut novel, The Wake, which tells a great story, a historical post-apocalypse set in England following the Norman Invasion. Kingsnorth makes the gutsy decision to tell the story in a modified version of Old English, making it quite hard to read: I fear he will lose readers by challenging them so greatly, but really, it’s a worthwhile book if you can struggle through. It gets better after 50 pages, I promise!

If you try any of these fine books out, I’d love to hear what you think. Thanks!

Bellingham Theatre Guild presents The Drowsy Chaperone

drowsyOn a rainy night, with a sprained ankle, I set out on my bicycle with Pops to see a local amateur production at a neighborhood theatre. In a word, the production was indeed amateur (which is to say, unpolished), but heartfelt and charming; and the play borders on too silly but was ultimately fun.

The narrator is a middle-aged, socially awkward man, sitting in the darkness of his apartment and dreaming about another world. He speaks directly to the audience about the strengths and downfalls of musical theatre, and puts on a record, the soundtrack to a musical of the 1920’s called The Drowsy Chaperone. The action comes to life in his living room, as the original cast performs the play, interrupted by our host’s interjected comments on the show.

The musical is your standard comedy of errors, involving a wedding that not everyone is supportive of, and includes mistaken identities and the beginnings of new romances. It was pretty cheesy, particularly in its song and dance (even more so than your standard musical!), although the tap dancing was a great addition. But as the story developed, I was more tuned in to the pathos of the narrator and more on board with the general silliness of the show-within-the-show. So while it started a little questionably, by the end I had let myself go into the world of the theatre, and it was rewarding. The performances were less than perfect, but again, this is local, amateur, community theatre: adjust your expectations a little, and be prepared for a good time. I left feeling uplifted by the fun, and will be looking for more Bellingham Theatre Guild performances in the future. Thanks, neighbors.


Rating: 6 gimlets.

Emily St. John Mandel

1. I am charmed and seduced by her most recent novel, Station Eleven. It is hypnotic.

2. She is a cute little person. At least I think she’s little; there is no scale in her bio picture, but she appears to be petite as well as cute.

3. She has five different people available for contact on her website (for representation; speaking; and publicity in the US, Canada and the UK). They are named Kelsey, Katherine, Kate, Kate, and Kate. Surely she had to have done that on purpose??

4. The title line for her short bio piece on the same website is: “St. John’s my middle name. The books go under M.” She has a sense of humor and c’mon, librarians and booksellers.


Dear Emily St. John Mandel,

I have a dear friend named Liz, and she is who recommended that I read your latest book. Liz is still batting 1000 with her recommendations to me, which is unprecedented and very impressive; nowadays her recommendations often move straight to the top of my very long list. She recommended I listen to the audiobook of Station Eleven, and so I am.

I am entranced by this world you’ve created, which is so closely related to but also so far apart from our own. I love the world within the world, of Station Eleven; I love that we meet the artist behind that world just a step behind entering it ourselves. I really appreciated the detail of the doctor calling from the emergency room near the beginning of the book. Dahlia is outstanding, and her speech got me thinking just as it did Clark. I was fascinated by Jeevan’s story at the start and, at nearly halfway through, I am anxious to know: will we go back to check in on him and find out his fate? When I checked in with Liz, I found that both she and her partner Steph had the same reaction: they wanted to hear more about Jeevan.

I haven’t even finished your book yet, but I know it has to end. And Liz says she doesn’t feel that this should be the end of the world you’ve imagined; she wants you to write more. Because I trust Liz, and because I love the first almost-half of this novel and know I will feel the same way, I want to say: please keep going. I know you have three earlier novels for me to go back and discover, but I’m not sure that’s enough.

Keep up the good work.

Thanks, and all my best,

Julia

“How to Write Like a Mother#^@%*&” by Elissa Bassist & Cheryl Strayed

I have not read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. But I did take seriously the recommendation of this piece that I found at creativenonfiction.org, and yes, I own this mug.

9

It would take me almost as many words to summarize and praise this article as are included in the article, so I shall exercise restraint and say: go read this now; it is excellent. Thank you, Cheryl & E-Bass.

movie: Jackie Brown

jackie brown
You know I’m a Tarantino fan, but I stumbled on this one, friends.

Jackie Brown (played by Pam Grier) is a flight attendant who’s been busted smuggling cash over international borders for Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Ordell. The cops don’t want her in prison: they want her to inform on him. Ordell bails her out with the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster, who feels decades more dated than the rest of the film), so he can kill her; but she thwarts him. Jackie plays the cops (chiefly an ATF agent played by Michael Keaton) against Ordell against Cherry, who falls for her; adding to the star-studded staff is Ordell’s old friend fresh out of jail, played by Robert De Niro, one of his kept women played by Bridget Fonda, and a brief role by Chris Tucker.

In Tarantino fashion, the plot is many-twisted: Jackie tells everybody a different story of herself and her plans, so watch closely for where she’s really headed and who’s really holding the bag. The script is heavy on clever monologues that are not strictly realistic but are great fun to listen to nonetheless. (These are the great strengths of Pulp Fiction, I think.) I hadn’t known that this movie was based on an Elmore Leonard novel (Rum Punch), but it makes sense now.

On the other hand, where I think the extensive use of the n-word in Django Unchained was fairly well justified and pointed, it grated here. There were many references to race that felt gratuitous rather than purposeful. I felt uncomfortable. I know this movie is supposed to reference a tradition of “blaxploitation” movies that I missed out on: maybe I’m just lacking the reference point to appreciate Tarantino’s edginess. But that’s my reaction: it was a little too unjustifiably race-conscious for me.

I did like the vintage feel to the movie. Anthony Lee Collins or somebody else with the relevant expertise will have to help me out here: I know there’s something about the cinematography, maybe the type of film used (?), that makes Jackie Brown feel older than it is. I can’t put my finger on it but Robert Forster’s character felt out of another time, even within the context of the film. And then there’s the text used in certain sections, like in the Kill Bill movies, that felt like it referenced something older, too.

So, a mixed review. I liked the plot twists, and the acting was excellent, and Tarantino’s monologues continue to crack me up. But the n-word got to me this time around.


Rating: 5 shopping bags.
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