best of ENGL 165, and some news

This spring I got to teach a literature course called Short Fiction (ENGL 165), and I loved it. As I said the other day, I’ve also had the chance to work with my friends’ 8th grade daughter: we read one story a week and talk about it on Friday afternoons, as a supplemental to her schooling-from-home. She’s followed along with my college students (freshmen through seniors), and kept up just fine. This was all wonderful: I got to talk about stories I love. (For this class, I made an effort to choose stories from authors of all identities; and I was also careful to only teach stories I like.)

That said, I had some favorites, some stories I can’t get enough of, that are deep and layered and complex enough to bear 10 and 15 readings and hours of discussion, that I can’t stop talking about, that I love to read aloud… and I thought I’d share that shorter list here. (Linked where available.) I have a top three:

And some honorable mentions:

What a privilege, to assign extraordinary literature and to talk about it. And I’ve had some lovely feedback from the students. In fact, maybe it’s time to share this news: I’ve landed the Irene McKinney Fellowship for a second year, and will be teaching again this fall. I’m honored and thrilled. Maybe I’ll get to teach Short Fiction again, or maybe it will be a different lit class… and I’ll have more stories to explore. Lucky, lucky me.

Short Fiction

I thought it would be fun to share with you some of the reading I’ll be doing this semester, for an other-than-usual reason: I am teaching the undergraduate lit course Short Fiction (ENGL 165) to a mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and I’m very excited about it. My students will read something like 50 stories this semester, and we’ll discuss elements of fiction (like plot, setting, character, point of view, style, and theme) in context of those stories. I cannot imagine that I’ll be writing about each one for you all here! (Although I suppose it’s possible that I’ll be moved to write about a few standouts. And some are already covered, of course.) But I thought at least you might appreciate a list of what stories I have in mind.

I’m using an anthology as a textbook: The Story and Its Writer, which also includes pretty good text on those elements of fiction, and supplementary materials such as analyses and author commentaries. I’ll also use Jon Corcoran’s The Rope Swing – we’ll discuss how it functions as a whole as well as in each individual story. And there will be a few “extra” stories that I’ll scan for my students. So, the list – in no particular order for now.

  • “I Stand Here Ironing,” Tillie Olsen
  • “Crazy They Call Me,” Zadie Smith
  • “A White Heron,” Sarah Orne Jewett
  • “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin
  • “Interpreter of Maladies,” Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Desiree’s Baby,” Kate Chopin
  • “Samuel,” Grace Paley
  • “The House on Mango Street,” Sandra Cisneros
  • “The Blood Bay,” Annie Proulx
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker
  • “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” Richard Wright
  • “Yellow Woman,” Leslie Marmon Silko
  • “Girl,” Jamaica Kincaid
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin
  • “A Brief Encounter with the Enemy,” Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
  • “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut
  • “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket,” Yasunari Kawabata
  • “Journey to the Seed,” Alejo Carpentier
  • “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History,” Art Spiegelman
  • “The Shawl,” Cynthia Ozick
  • “A Continuity of Parks,” Julio Cortázar
  • “Looking for a Rain-God,” Bessie Head
  • “Cathedral,” Raymond Carver
  • excerpt from Persepolis: “The Veil,” Marjane Satrapi
  • “The Moths,” Helena María Viramontes
  • “Dimensions,” Alice Munro
  • “Brownies,” ZZ Packer
  • excerpt from Palestine: “Refugeeland,” Joe Sacco
  • “Vision Out of the Corner of One Eye,” Luisa Valenzuela
  • “The Colonel,” Carolyn Forché
  • “The Fellowship,” Alison Bechdel
  • “The Swimmer,” John Cheever
  • “Barbie-Q,” Sandra Cisneros
  • excerpt from Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa
  • “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien
  • “Appalachian Swan Song,” Jonathan Corcoran, from The Rope Swing (RS)
  • “The Rope Swing” (RS)
  • “Pauly’s Girl” (RS)
  • “Through the Still Hours” (RS)
  • “Felicitations” (RS)
  • “Corporeal” (RS)
  • “Hank the King” (RS)
  • “Excavation” (RS)
  • “Brooklyn, 4 a.m.” (RS)
  • “A Touch” (RS)
  • “Pea Madness,” Amy Leach, from Things That Are
  • “Four Boston Basketball Stories,” Brian Doyle, from The Mighty Currawongs
  • “The Pull,” Lidia Yuknavitch, from Verge
  • Any Other,” Jac Jemc
  • The Little Mermaid,” (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg
  • Who Will Greet You At Home,” Lesley Nneka Arimah

This list includes writers of various ethnicities and national backgrounds, gay and trans writers, Westerners and non-Westerners, graphic stories, recent and historic ones. It is probably a few stories too long – definitely subject to some change, but not much. I meet my students in just a few days, and I want us to more or less have a plan.

What do you think? A class you’d be interested in??

2019: A Year in Review

Happy New Year, friends! The other day you saw my best of the year post, and here we are today with another traditional annual post. (You can see my past years in review here: 2018; 2017; 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011.) I’m always glad to put these numbers together and see what’s changed, and in writing this post, I knew the numbers would be very different. I finished 2018 by finishing an MFA program; I spent the bulk of 2019 living in a van, with no day job except the book reviews.

In 2019, I read 88 books, compared to 66 in 2018. While not up to my good-old-days numbers nearing 150 books per year, this increase definitely reflects some change. A season for all things…

Of the books I read this year:

  • 55% were nonfiction (last year I read 70% nonfiction).
  • 41% were written by female authors (53% last year); 59% were by men (41% last year), with the remainder being collections by multiple authors, or variously unidentifiable, or “other” – this was a negligible category this year, although it made a larger proportion in 2018.
  • Of the fiction I read, 25% were contemporary (a growing number), 22% historical, 18% mysteries, and a whopping 23% were sci fi (that would all be The Expanse). Last year I mostly read fiction I was categorizing as “misc,” which seems to indicate I need better categories, although I didn’t so much change my classification scheme as read more in the categories I’d already established (like sci fi!).
  • In perhaps the most notable (and most predictable) change this year, nearly 20% of what I “read” I listened to as audiobooks. This is all about the van travel, of course. In 2018 I listened to just one audiobook, although in previous years I’ve been as high as 25%, back when I was a commuter.
  • Another big and predictable change: reading for school. Combined reading as student and as teacher this year amounted to just 6% of the books I read; while I was an MFA student my years were 49-70% schoolwork. Happily, 36% of my reading was purely for pleasure, plus a handful marked with the reason “travel” (which can be counted as pleasure: researching places I was headed). 51% were read for reviews. I think I need to make it a life goal to get out from under that majority, much as I love my work.
  • I was sent 54% of my reading by authors and organizations seeking reviews (which means I marked several as read for pleasure; sorry if that’s confusing). Another 24% I purchased (down from 64% last year!), and the remaining 22% were gifts, loans, or library books – sources not much in evidence these last few years.
  • I found time to reread three books this year. I thought it was more than that! With just one in 2018, this remains a negligible category, but I’m glad for each and every one (hello, Brian Doyle).

Some of these numbers changed less than I thought they would – total books read, and rereads, for example. Overall, I’m pleased to see the increased variety in what I read. I’m very grateful to the Shelf for being so flexible with me while I’m on the road, and for being my only employer for most of the year; but I confess I wish I were choosing a few more books for myself and purely for pleasure. (It’s true that the Shelf sent me almost every favorite book of the year. But you know, there’s so much more out there, too…) And now heading into 2020, I can just imagine that we’ll have another drastically different year, with teaching a literature course – surely this will suck up much of my reading time? – and the at-present-total-unknown second half of that year… All I can say is stick around and we’ll all find out together what the heck I’m doing. Thanks for bearing with me through all the surprises!!

How did 2019 treat you as readers? What do you hope the new year – and decade – holds?

best of 2019: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up Wednesday, as per usual. But first, also as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year. (You can see past years’ best-of lists at this tag.)

The short best-of-the-best list:

Honorable mentions:

Note that these are overwhelmingly new releases, which bodes well for the publishing industry in general (and probably reflects my reading habits) (and credit to my lovely editor Dave who sends me such great books to review).

Bonus: Shelf Awareness’s Best Books of the Year is available at that link. It includes none of my choices but that’s okay – more to choose from! Bonus-bonus: their Best Children’s and Teen Books.

Hooray for good books always! What are some of the best things you read this year?

Come back Wednesday to see a further breakdown of my reading habits in 2019.

From the Shelf: “Memoir: Commonalities in Differences”

This column ran on October 22, 2019 in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

I love reading: stories, novels, poetry, magazine articles, listicles, all sorts of things. But the genre that strikes closest to my heart is memoir. I love finding commonalities among differences, noting the ways we’re all tied together.

In The Wild Boy (Atria, $16.99), Paolo Cognetti recounts the year, at age 30, in which he returned to the Italian Alps with a sense of yearning for something earlier, simpler, purer. In these circumstances and in its literary cast, Cognetti’s memoir recalls Phillip Connors’s transcendent Fire Season (Ecco, $14.99), about a summer spent working as fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Connors’s slim, moving book considers the history of fire management, family ties, solitude and so much more. That season became a career for Connors, and readers can follow his lovely, lyric writing, tender storytelling and heartbreak for the natural world in his sequel, A Song for the River (Cinco Puntos, $16.95).

Following numerous essays and novels (Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, The Wake, Beast [all Graywolf, $16]), Paul Kingsnorth offers a vulnerable core of himself in Savage Gods (Two Dollar Radio, $14.99), a memoir in part of writer’s block and in part of the more general frustration, stagnation and despair brought about by years of fighting for the Earth and her nonhuman inhabitants. Only Kingsnorth could express anguish so beautifully–in the midst of a claimed inability to write.

Jennifer Croft’s Homesick (Unnamed Press, $28) is a stunning, layered memoir, with photos, that reveals a passionate fascination with language as well as the story of two sisters, their devotion and devastation. It is a stylistic masterpiece, a narrative puzzle and an intelligent book to get lost in. In its elegiac consideration of family, it is cousin to fine work like Kelly Grey Carlisle’s We Are All Shipwrecks (Sourcebooks, $15.99) and Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye (Tin House, $15.95).

2018: A Year in Review

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


Happy New Year, friends! Last week you saw my best of the year post, and here we are today with another traditional annual post. (You can see my past years in review here: 2017; 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011.)


In 2018, I read a mere 66 books (about on track with last year at 70). This feels like so few! compared to years in which I did more than twice that many. But school, man. It’s hard to do all that reading when I’m schooling as hard as I can too!

Here are the rest of the stats. Of the books I read this year:

  • 70% were nonfiction , 30% fiction. (Last year I read 76% nonfiction.)
  • 53% were written by female authors (50% last year); 41% were by men (40% last year), with the remainder being collections by multiple authors, or variously unidentifiable, or “other.” I am pleased with this subtle shift.
  • I normally analyze the novels I read by genre, but that fiction category is getting slim enough that these numbers get a little less interesting. This year, more than half the fiction I read I categorized as “misc” (plus a handful of short story collections, historical fiction, and thrillers).
  • I listened to a single audiobook this year, and it was a reread. Last year, none. Audiobooks used to be such a big part of my reading life, but again, school. 2019 will be different, though! Especially with all the driving.
  • 49% of my reading this year was assigned for school, which, again, goes toward explaining everything else I see here. There’s a change, though, from last year when 70% of my reading was school! Hm. Progress?
  • I purchased 64% of the books I read, and was sent the rest for review (mostly by the Shelf). This is another change, since I used to take books out from the library and receive them as gifts. I’ve more recently been living in a place without great library service, though, and I have mostly nixed the book gifts! So kind, but so many books and so little time (and space)!

The two years of my MFA program, then, have been rather alike: a much smaller volume of reading than I was accustomed to, and unsurprisingly, largely driven by school. The coming year will be one of great change, though. I expect to be reading more; to be choosing what I get to read (!); and to be reviewing more for Shelf Awareness, for which I am eternally grateful. (For one thing, my new life on the road makes it quite a bit harder for them to get me the galleys I need, and I am so very pleased and humbled that they’re willing to work with me on this.) I expect to be listening to more audiobooks. In many ways, I don’t know what to expect, but I’m so looking forward to it.

Thanks for continuing this journey with me, friends and followers. Here’s to an amazing reading year to come.

What was 2018 like for you as readers? What do you hope the new year holds?

best of 2018: year’s end

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


My year-in-review post will be up next week, as usual. But first, also as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year. (You can see past years’ best-of lists at this tag.) None of these were audiobooks, but a few were new releases, so I’ve marked those with *.

These three books and one essay got a rating of 10.

And while I gave rather a lot of 9’s this year, I’ve chosen my favorites (from today’s perspective, at least) for you here, for a shorter list.

Bonus: Shelf Awareness’s Best Books of the Year is available at that link, and includes two that I had the good luck to review (Everything Under* and Convenience Store Woman*).

Hooray for good books always! What are some of the best things you read this year?

Come back next week to see a further breakdown of my reading habits in 2018.

my favorite craft books

As we approach the time of year when I usually do lists, I was inspired to add this one, when a dear friend from my MFA program asked me for craft book recommendations in particular. (Abby is usually a fiction writer but is entering her cross-genre semester in nonfiction, so a special emphasis there.) Another dear friend from my MFA program, Okey, used to enjoy this blog and said he especially looked here for craft recommendations. (We lost Okey after this past summer’s residency, unexpectedly, and we are all still reeling. If you haven’t already, please consider this scholarship in his name. It’s a great cause in the name of diversity and inclusivity.)

So. Here’s a list in two tiers, followed by a link to all the craft books I’ve read. Keep in mind that these are the books that have worked best for me, and your mileage may vary. I put a * next to the ones for nonfiction in particular, for Abby and for anyone else who may be interested.

Very favorites, in no particular order:

Well loved, in no particular order:

And, click here to see all books with this tag, which will include titles not listed here.

Thanks for stopping by, as always. Was this list helpful for you? Is there another list you’d like to see me work on? (In the past I’ve done movies, children’s books, audio favorites, science books, LGBTQ…) Let me know, and maybe I’ll put one together!

best of 2018, first half

As I mentioned Wednesday, it’s been an outstanding year in my reading life. I feel so fortunate. I think like I’ve given almost every book Jeremy assigned me this semester a rating of 8 or better: what a guy! Such success motivated me to share a list of my favorite books I’ve read this year, to date. Of course, the full list is still due to you at year’s end.

These are among the best of the year, so far, with ratings of 9 or higher.

And I have two favorites, above and beyond.

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, by Elizabeth Rush is just published this week. It is a somber book about climate change and injustice; but despite the bad news, I eventually found Rush’s search for empathy and peace uplifting, and her prose positively glitters.

Philip Connors has a new book coming out in August, and I was lucky enough receive an advanced reader’s copy, based on my admiration of his first, Fire Season, a book that changed my life. The forthcoming A Song for the River may be even better. I am reeling. Like Rising, A Song is a sad book. Both made me cry, more than once. But this book, something of a sequel to Fire Season, is as beautiful and vital and true and alive as anything I’ve ever read.

I don’t know how I got so lucky as to read two books in the first half of this year that could each be the best book I’ve read in years. Happy reading this weekend and onward, friends.

Quick list of LGBTQ reads

A graduate of my MFA program asked on a private forum,

Does anyone have suggestions of short stories, essays, and poems I could use in a Gender and Lit class that could introduce my students to LGBTQ lit and how it resists stereotypes and challenges the gender binary?

and I wanted to put together a quick list in response. But first, let me say: I think it’s interesting to consider who is qualified to answer this question. Part of me feels the need to disclose that I’m not a member of the LGBTQ community in the sense that I’m straight and cis-gendered. My colleagues & classmates who are members of this community by identity might have more authority in answering this request than I have. On the other hand, I hope that we can all recognize the reading that a) appears well-crafted and b) answers a certain need. I’m an LGBTQ ally. I try to recognize the nuances of (for example) stereotypes, as posed by the person who posted this request. I’m not perfect, but I’ve made an effort to be an informed reader of this and many other kinds of literature. Best efforts, then, with a stated sensitivity to the privilege with which I enter this work.

Here are the top nine books that I thought of. The original poster asked for shorter works, so my response is imperfect, but these are what I have to offer. (Two collections offer easy excerpting; more effort would be required to excerpt the longer full works, but it might be worth it.)

book list:

Others responded to this request with titles like Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean, a collection from Appalachia, and with some connections to my MFA program, edited by Adrian Blevins and Karen Salyer McElmurray–I own this book but haven’t cracked it yet, I’m afraid–and Andrea Gibson’s poem “Your Life.” Further:

Danez Smith and Qwo-Li Driskill and Ocean Vuong are poets that intermingled their race and their lgbt identity in their poems. Janet Mock. I mean technically a lot of the Harlem renaissance poets were always merging their otherness with their racial identity and their sexual identity. Such as Langston Hughes. Audrey Lorde’s Zami actually creates this almost mythos surrounding blackness and coming into this womanly identity and loving women. Leslie Feinburg is a bit heavy but ze is a prominent figure in the lgbt community. Allison Bechdel is a graphic novelist but graphic novels are still solid and easy to pick up on as a narrative.

Music is fun too! Rappers reclaim particular words and terms… Again still a bit heavy but Brockhampton and The Internet are fun and sometimes soft lyrical gay sounds. Where Mykki Blanco is… all weird trance-y edm bopping type sounds that scopes in on… the black lgbt club scene and their lingo and it’s just fun. I dunno if those are also lyrical structures to be explored. I think they are important but that’s just… how I perceive music as a social device. Especially in the black community.

And I just want to say, especially in response to that last post, that I think interdisciplinarity is a really important strategy in education. I think I would have been more engaged in high school if I’d better understood the ways in which science, art, literature, history, social movements, etc. happened in tandem, rather than in separate classrooms. Maybe it’s my interest in humans, but I think understanding that all these “subjects” are a part of human history and human experience, would have made each more interesting to me than they were at the time. Figuring out the interconnectedness on my own, later, was itself a fascinating process, but I might have been more excited about school at the time if interdiscplinarity had been made a bit more clear to me then. So, I support the inclusion of music in this class!

Well, that was a longer post than I intended; I hope it was helpful (to the original asker, or to anyone), and I’m very interested in what others may have to offer as well. Comment below!

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