A few weeks ago I asked for your help with a project. That project has now gone live: I’m calling it birth/place, and you can visit it here. I want to thank those of you who have offered to contribute, and I invite the rest of you to do so. Also, of course, you are invited to follow birth/place at that link. New images go up every Tuesday morning, so you’ll get just one ping a week (unlike the five-day schedule I keep here).
Call this a break in our regularly scheduled programming: I’d love a little help, readers. I am working on a class project that involves making contact with people born in each one of the 50 United States, as well as Washington, D.C. and protectorates like Puerto Rico and Guam. As you can imagine, I know lots of native Texans, and am doing all right with some larger or heavily populated states like California. (I am surprised at how many people I know who were born in Michigan. Why Michigan?) I could use help with some of the teenier states in New England – hello, Rhode Island – and others. I won’t list them here because I’ll probably take all comers: I am accepting multiple submissions.
I am asking for volunteers to receive an email request from me for your participation. If you choose to play, it could take as little as five minutes or so for you to contribute to my project. (There is also room, if you feel so moved, for you to spend more time on your submission, but that is entirely up to you.) If you’re intrigued, please shoot me an email at juliasbookreviews at gmail dot com, and I’ll get back with you. Of course you can always back out, too.
For my readers who were born outside of the United States (& territories etc.), if you’d like to participate, you’re welcome to drop me a line as well. I’m not sure in what form such submissions will make it into the final project, but I’d love to hear from you. It would be great to be able to expand this concept on a global scale, but as an issue of scale & simplicity, I’m beginning with just the one country.
Thanks for helping, if you choose! And always, thanks for reading.
I’ve said it before. I think I started saying it when I worked as a librarian in the leisure-reading library of a hospital, and people would ask me for reading recommendations: when they insisted on hearing what I would read, I would carefully point out that that’s not necessarily relevant to their needs. We can’t all like the same things in life, and it’s a good thing: imagine how long the lines would be.
I think it’s okay, and even beautiful, that we don’t all like the same things or have the same strengths & weaknesses. As my marriage of almost 8 years now continues to grow and flow, I learn more and more how different Husband and I are, in how our minds work, although we share many tastes & values. It makes us a stronger team, which is something I didn’t consciously recognize when we married. That’s a digression, though. I’m talking about what we all enjoy in life. We like different music, different food, different hobbies and different people – and again, good thing, because it wouldn’t work out well if we all wanted to marry the same person or thought Johnny Cash was the *only* artist worth listening to: how boring.
In books, though, there seems to always be a pressure to recognize one novel by a certain author as her classic work, or to agree that Faulkner is high art and Stephen King is pulp. I confess that some part of me still feels this pressure from time to time (although I think I’ve given up on Faulkner). But I’ve been trying for years to learn for myself, and to assert to any audience I may have, that it’s okay that we have different tastes. It really is.
The other day, I reviewed The Tender Bar, a book I loved. Not everyone will love it, though. For one thing, the author is extremely nostalgic and loving of one bar. This should go without saying, but if you are impatient with nostalgia in general, or opposed to bars in particular, this book will not work for you. I read a review online by a reader who doesn’t drink and doesn’t “get” the love of an individual bar: he didn’t like this book. Surprise, surprise. It’s okay! This just wasn’t a good match.
Further, Moehringer indulges in sentiment. If this is a major turn-off for you, no problem; but you should read elsewhere. We don’t all like that tone. And probably many of us like that tone only when it’s a nostalgia we can share – like, if you’ve loved a bar the way Moehringer loves the Publican, you’ll be better able to tolerate and appreciate his sentimental remembrances than if you have not. This doesn’t mean that I’m wrong, or that that other reader is. There’s room for both of us.
A writer I greatly respect recently expressed surprise that I love Rick Bragg as much as I do. He wrote to me:
I’ve always thought Rick Bragg was a bit of a blowhard. Maybe I’m too northern, or too judgmental when it comes to style. Maybe I just like a cleaner line.
When I read those lines, I immediately felt that I knew exactly what he meant; and I understand his criticisms. I think we are observing more or less the same things, although of course I didn’t describe my observations the way my friend did: I had a different personal reaction to the same writer. Because my friend and I are two different people. And isn’t that as it should be?
When I write book reviews solely for this blog, I am speaking with my personal voice, as Julia, about my personal reactions. When I write for ForeWord, or Shelf Awareness, or other employers, I am supposed to remove the personal: I’m supposed to behave like I did when I was a librarian performing readers’ advisory services. I try to show what the book is about and what strengths it has to offer and, in other words (sometimes explicitly, sometimes not), what kind of reader might enjoy it or be turned off. This is why I (rarely) add an addendum to the published review when I repost it here on my blog. This is also why you might see me rate a book lower than the review seemed to imply. That is to say, this is a good book – for a different reader than I.
As the number of books I read and review continues to grow, I continue to feel lucky to get to do this work. I love learning, I love meeting new people and concepts between the pages, and I love the intellectual as well as the emotional play between the book and myself. And I guess I just wanted at this point to stop and say: we won’t all love the same things, and that’s a beautiful fact. Take my ratings with a grain of salt. Ideally even, learn my tastes so you can recognize where we will and won’t agree. Don’t be afraid to like different things than the next person. I know a lot of people can’t stomach Hemingway, and that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends! Anyway, the lines are shorter this way.
I am struggling to respond to the book I just finished, so I wrote a letter instead.
Mr. Rick Bragg,
I make a very small living as a book reviewer these days, but reading your books I am no kind of book reviewer, because I don’t know how to write about what you do when you write about your life.
Of course I believe that the best books for us find us at the right times, and yours have found me at the time when they can hit me the hardest. I am having a crisis of identity and place, having moved from my hometown of 32 1/2 years in Texas to a small town on the Canadian border of Washington state, which I have found largely unworkable. Your writing about places I have never lived and know only a little or not at all – Miami, New Orleans, rural Alabama – makes me feel homesick. Your writing about being a displaced Southerner at Harvard, or in New York City, resonates with me, although I am not the same as you. I’m from a big city – the fourth largest in the country – and have moved to a small one; but your displacements feels familiar all the same.
You are, of course, one of the finest writers about food that I’ve encountered. At the risk of offending, I will say I don’t eat pork, because I don’t like pork; but your descriptions of cracklin’s (etc.) still make me wish I were there and not here.
I am not one of those “who went to speech school to get rid of their accents,” in part because I don’t have much of an accent, being from a city, but what I have I will keep – although I was at one point one of those, as you observe, who fear “they sound slow, or at least unsophisticated, to outsiders.” When I interviewed for a big-time academic job in the North, I worried about saying y’all. I shouldn’t have. I don’t apologize, any more.
Houston is many things, big and diverse, containing multitudes, and that is my single favorite thing about the place; this also means that Houston can be a bit schizophrenic, even self-loathing. You write that Atlanta “tears down its history with wrecking balls, and builds something bland and homogenized in its place.” Houston has done too much of that, although it’s done lots of other things with its history, as well.
This wasn’t supposed to be about me, but that’s the work your writing does. I see a lot of myself and my own experience, even where I see all sorts of adventures that are unknown to me. That’s a piece of work, in itself.
You’ve made a big difference to me. Keep up the good work. I wish you and yours all the best; you feel like friends to me now.
Tomorrow I’ll try again to write a book review.
Sometimes it happens this way. I decide I need to read a book – not put it on the TBR shelf to grow musty for two to five years to never, but really read it – and (as in this case) I put myself on the local library’s hold list for it. It comes my turn, and I go to the library and pick it up off a special shelf where it’s been filed under my name. I take it home, and I go back to reading the books I’ve been assigned, for work, for a living. I read another 6, 8, 10 books; some of them are really good, and I get involved and distracted. I interview a few authors, which is often, not always, engrossing. I go online to renew this book that I haven’t made time for yet, and find that – of course – someone else is on the hold list, behind me in line. I have to turn it in in four days. If you have forgotten this about me, I am a librarian. I’m no longer employed as such, but that blood pumps through me still.
So I put down the book I had just begun reading, for work, with a deadline. That book, by the way, offered an epigraph by the author of this book. And I pick up All Over But the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg.
Bragg blew my mind with My Southern Journey (which will publish in two weeks or so; look out for my review then), and although I’d heard his name before, I never knew that he would be a writer to reach into me in such a way, to pull on me and make me nostalgic for a place that is not my home: foreign language words like fernweh, sehnsucht, saudade seem to touch on it. Bragg’s travels capture me; how will I ever go back to that other book, let alone my life, when this is done?
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.
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?
Realizing the obvious: as a creative person, I have good days and bad ones. When I get discouraged, I get very discouraged, and feel unable to do the writing & editing I know I need to do; I want to give it all up. As my friend Liz says, though, some days we just need to lie fallow (and give ourselves permission to do so).
I don’t want to dwell on that negative side today, though: I want to talk about the other days, the hyperproductive ones, when I can write 3 book reviews, do an author interview, schedule 4 blog posts and finish an essay I’d been working on. That happens sometimes, too! And you know what those productive days have in common? Coffee.
Shelf Awareness shared with me the other day an article called 12 Literary Coffee Mugs All Book Nerds Need in Their Lives. I am tickled by the concept, naturally. Go ahead, click the link, and see the bookish, readerly coffee mugs on offer there. I have made my own collection, though, and naturally think mine are a better set of choices: readerly and writerly as well.
What about you, dear readers? Coffee or tea? In what mug? Does it matter?