Books Read in 2013

I have started keeping track of the books I read over the course of the year. I’m a little embarrassed about this list, frankly — because it isn’t anywhere near as long as it should be. But in my own defense I will tell you that I, Claudius took a long time to read. It is brilliant and absolutely worth reading, though.

Before I list the books, here are the literary magazines I got this year:

  • Fence
  • Gargoyle
  • Ecotone
  • Fiction
  • Camera Obscura
  • The Cincinnati Review
  • The Missouri Review

And now, without further ado, I read these books:

  • Blue Nights, by Joan Didion
  • Play It as It Lays, by Joan Didion
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
  • Cherry, by Mary Karr
  • I, Claudius, by Robert Graves
  • Lit, by Mary Karr
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
  • The World According to Garp, by John Irving
  • By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham
  • Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
  • Absolom, Absolom!, by William Faulkner
  • The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
  • Eat to Live, by Joel Fuhrman
  • The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
  • All That Is, by James Salter
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
  • The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea
  • The Manikin, by Joanna Scott
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell
  • New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing, by Ted Conover
  • Everybody Loves Somebody, by Joanna Scott
  • Dr. Sleep, by Stephen King
  • Dracula, by Bram Stoker
  • In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
  • Setting Free the Bears, by John Irving
  • The 158 Pound Marriage, by John Irving
  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
  • Libra, by Don DeLillo
  • The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Fall / Winter Reading List

This is my fall/winter reading list.  I was busy typing out a fall list when I realized that there would be no way I could finish it before spring—so fall/winter it is!  The two noticeable things here are a focus on memoir (in preparation for writing my own) and the resolve to finally finish Ulysses. Here is the full list:


Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

About halfway through this book now. The prose is strong, just as it was inMiddlesex and The Virgin Suicides, and the literary allusions are great. The story, however, isn’t gripping me the way it did in those earlier books. We’ll see—maybe it will pick up.

James Joyce, Ulysses

I have written an essay about my multiple failures to finish Ulysses.  I have started it three times; I even purchased a fresh copy after the first two failures to get past the funeral scene. I love every word—so I’m unsure as to why my energy gives out. Going to finish it this time.

John Irving, The Cider House Rules

This is the only John Irving book I haven’t read, and it is about time I read it—given that Irving is my favorite living writer.


Tennessee Williams, Plays 1937—1955  

Williams is one of my favorite American playwrights.  Need to re-readOrpheus Descending in particular since I’m working on a monologue from it.


Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

Re-reading. Perhaps the best memoir ever written. Worth a second read just for the descriptions of butterflies.

Nigel Slater, Toast

This turned up on many “best memoir” lists when I searched the Internet.  The book is grounded by food—which makes me think of M. F. K. Fisher’s wonderful memoir, The Gastronomical Me.

Paula Fox, Borrowed Finery

Recommended by a friend.

Kyoko Mori, Yarn

Re-reading.  A gorgeous book by one of my MFA professors. Will probably pick this one up first.

Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

Re-reading. Loved this book about a difficult childhood—and difficult parents—the first time I read it.  I think it will help me with my own book quite a bit.

Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

Re-reading.  Another book about a difficult childhood; I’m hoping it will help me with my own.

J. R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar

Re-reading. More difficult childhood stuff.

Mary Karr, Lit

Recommended by a friend.

Abigail Thomas, Three Dog Life

Recommended by a friend.

Ann Hood, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief

I heard Ann Hood read from Comfort at Tin House several years ago, and I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since.

Augusten Burroughs, Running With Scissors

Re-reading.  Love his ability to infuse a story of pain with humor.


William Shakespeare, Sonnets

I am terrible with endings.  Hoping that Shakespeare’s genius with wrapping things up will teach me something.

Theater and Writing Character

Writing character . . .

Working on literary fiction is all about that, right? I’ve been told this time and again, and my reading confirms it.  But oh, how I’ve struggled! Reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 with it’s long and detailed descriptions of each character’s physicality helped—I will probably copy that technique of Murakami’s in everything I write from here forward.  Also helpful were A.C.’s reminders that every character needs a dramatic action.  I’m not sure, however, that I fully understood how to think about each character’s dramatic action until now. What is different?  I have, for reasons perhaps unknown even to myself, returned to theater after an 18 year hiatus. Acting is creation of character.  And working on a show has reminded me that writing fiction is creation of character, too.  Dramatic action—that phrase that gave me trouble—has become much clearer now: dramatic action follows motivation.  That question we actors are always asking—“But what’s my motivation?”—is helping me to get my fiction on the page.  And I know this approach is working, because my fiction reads better than it did before. So from now on, especially when lost over what to do about a minor character that is reading as flat or cliché, I will look into what the character’s motivations are for the actions I’ve given them—and rewrite their scenes in light of those motivations.  Voila: automatic subtext and depth!

More proof that work in one art form informs work in another.

To Contest or Not to Contest?

Contests run by literary magazines are somewhat controversial. I know people on both sides here—those who enter and those who don’t—and I think I understand each position. Most prize competitions cost money, and some don’t want to pay the fee, feeling that the situation is the equivalent of paying to have work published. Some just don’t want to budget for it—perhaps financially cramped already by the printing and postage costs associated with regular submissions. All of this is reasonable. Some go so far as to say that contests are essentially scams put together by journals to make money. I don’t think that is reasonable. But I have heard more than one smart person express that opinion.

I’m in favor of entering contests—although I must admit to bias as a result of having won the first one I entered. Why did I enter that first one? Because contests can be a relatively easy way to get into print. (I’m living proof that they can be a way out of the slush and into the magazine.) The fiction editor of a mid-tier literary magazine had recently told me that he had received less than 50 submissions for an annual short story contest. He ended up extending the deadline in an attempt to get more entries, but didn’t get much of a response. Now those are some damned fine odds, folks. I didn’t enter that contest given my relationship with that editor, but I did start entering other ones. As I mentioned, I won the first I entered. That hasn’t happened since, but I did get an honorable mention once. I’ve probably entered about 15 total. The win had a prize of $500. I’ve used that money to enter more contests.

Even without that “enter more contests” fund, I’d still enter them. The reason is this: with most competitions you get a subscription to a journal. Why you should be subscribing to lit mags is, perhaps, the topic for another blog entry, but the short of it is that subscriptions are an integral part of being a good member of the literary community. I believe strongly in subscribing to at least a couple of them every year, in order to support the world I want to enter. So why not get those subscriptions in connection with a contest?

Finally, there are some great free contests out there. Shenandoah runs the Bevel Summers Prize for Short Short Stories and the Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets. As I mention in another post, Camera Obscura periodically runs its Bridge-the-Gap contest. Free contests are out there—you just have to find them.

What do you think? To contest or not to contest?

Summer Reading List

Inspired by Elissa Field’s summer reading list, I have created my own–with ample room for last-minute additions.  Happy reading, everyone!


Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

I began this almost 1000 page book this spring, and I’m still working on it.  I’ve got almost 200 pages to go.  The book is a masterpiece and reading it has been pure joy.  I have learned quite a lot about writing fiction—especially how important it is to describe a character’s physicality in a thorough and entertaining way. The only bad thing about this work is that I have been losing some sleep because I can’t put the damn thing down at night.

Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country

Two Japanese greats in a row—Murakami and Kawabata! A friend loaned meSnow Country a long time ago, and it is high time I read it and gave it back to him. Because of this, it is first up after I finish 1Q84. This short novel came about in a fascinating way—it arose out of a series of short stories that appeared in five different literary journals.

John Irving, In One Person

There is no one like John Irving.  He has been my favorite writer ever since I picked up A Prayer for Owen Meany and read this famous first line: I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I never tire of John Irving’s explorations of grief and sexuality and loss.  I think I am going to review this one.  Not sure where I’ll send the review—but I’ll find somewhere.

Alan Cheuse, Song of Slaves in the Desert 

I have been terribly remiss in my failure to read this book before now. Not only because Alan has been such a kind mentor to me, but because I find myself learning so much from his fiction that I read it with a notebook next to me.  Like all of Alan’s work, I am sure Song of Slaves is both moving and gorgeous. I look forward to this book more than anything else on this list. Check out an excerpt HERE.

Viginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway and The Collected Short Stories

I fell hard for Virginia Woolf when I read her very short story, “Kew Gardens,” for a class. I have now become obsessed after reading a novella she wrote called Jacob’s Room.  It is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.  Pure genius.  I am going to inhale some Woolf this summer.


Euripides, 10 Plays 

I’m making my way through a collection of plays by Greek playwright Euripides.  This was inspired in part by the strange pull I’ve been feeling lately toward drama. I’m considering going back to working in the theater (or at least doing some auditioning) for the first time in 20 years and would like to find a good classical monologue. So far I’ve read “The Bacchae” and “The Trojan Women.”  I’m reading about a play a day.

William Shakespeare, Collected Works

The quest for a classical audition monologue continues with some Shakespeare.  I never tire of reading Shakespeare.


Cheryl Strayed, Wild

The thought of this one makes me a little sad because I was supposed to do a writing workshop with Cheryl at Esalen this month.  I decided to help out at work instead because of my boss’s maternity leave—so I’ll have to be happy with just reading the book.

Augusten Burroughs, This is How

Because we could all use a little help from the writer of Running With Scissors.  Supposedly Burroughs turns the ridiculous self-help movement on its head with this new book. I’m looking forward to both the inevitable laughter and a little tough love.


Anne Sexton, The Complete Poems

I have come back to these poems again and again ever since I was about sixteen.  Sexton bleeds all over every page and I love her for it.  Reading The Awful Rowing Toward God recently inspired me to do the unthinkable—write a couple of poems.

Sally Ball, Annus Mirabilis

Ms. Ball named my poem “At the River House, In January” as an honorable mention in GMU’s Virginia Downs Poetry Contest.  With this happy introduction to her work, I have ordered a copy of Annus Mirabilis, a collection that won the 2004 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize.

Camera Obscura’s Bridge-the-Gap Contest

For those who enjoy both prompts and writing short shorts, I’d like to mention the Camera Obscura Bridge-the-Gap contestCamera Obscura posts two photographs on its website as a prompt; the idea is that one picture acts as the ingress and the other as the egress of a story born of both images. Stories should be 1,000 words or less.

It is free to enter, and the winner gets both $50 and publication on the magazine’s website.

The deadline for the latest bridge is fast approaching—June 1st. Check out the gallery of the winning stories and submit your entry now!

Common Narratives

I was recently reminded of the danger of a good story being lost in the shuffle of the pile—whether the slush pile at a literary magazine or the submissions pile at a prestigious writers’ conference—if it involves a common narrative. In a recent article at Fiction Writers Review, Celeste Ng discusses her experience with reading large numbers of these kinds of stories while working as a reader for waiterships at Bread Loaf, and as a reader for the Pushcart Prize. She breaks them down pretty much as I would—like this:

  • Cheating Partner Stories
  • Abusive Childhood Stories
  • Dead Parent Stories
  • Dead Partner Stories
  • Dead Child Stories

Imagine my dismay when I realized that one of the two novellas that make up my thesis involves three of these storylines (Cheating Partner, Dead Partner, Dead Child).  And then it occurred to me that the second novella employs one as well (Dead Child. Well, sort of.).

Celeste Ng warns against the pitfalls involved in writing and submitting these types of stories. She comes to the conclusion that many writers are using these plots as a sort of emotional short hand—employing a sad situation in lieu of communicating the feelings of the characters to the reader.  Am I doing this with my novellas? I might be.

So what do I do? Dump everything I’ve already written and start over? Or find a way to make it work?  Making it work is possible. These narratives are common for a reason.  One of my favorite writers, John Irving, is a master at “Dead Parent.” And “Hills Like White Elephants” comes to mind when I consider “Dead Child.” The trick is to make it fresh.  Ms. Ng mentions that she read a story about grief—one of those “Dead Partner” narratives—that had a widow commissioning a wax figure of her late husband to ease her loneliness.  Now that is both fascinating and fresh—common narrative or not.

Ng’s article reminded me of something in Smokelong Quarterly’s Guidelines: “We have a special place in our hearts, more often than not, for narratives we haven’t seen before. For the more familiar stories—such as relationship break-ups, bar scenarios, terminal illnesses—we tend to need something original and urgent in the writer’s presentation.”

I’m not going to start over with my thesis, but I am going to go through it today and see what I can do to make it “original and urgent.”

Genre Jumping

A friend recently said: “I love how you genre bend.” The word “bend” gave me a strange image—that of myself playing Twister: “right hand on poem, left foot on short story, right foot on essay, left hand on book review.” As amusing as that might be, bend isn’t really the right word. Bend calls working in hybrid forms to mind, and that isn’t what I do. It’s more like I “jump.”  Yes, that’s the word—jump.

GMU’s MFA program requires that all students take an out-of-genre class. I’m a fiction student, so for me that meant taking Forms of Nonfiction or Forms of Poetry.  Afraid of writing in verse, I took the CNF class. It turned out to be one of my favorites, and I discovered that my nonfiction is significantly better than my fiction. And, more importantly, I found that I love writing it. I never would have known this—or written a personal essay at all—without GMU forcing me into the class.

This year—spurred in part by my success with creative nonfiction—I did the unthinkable: I wrote a couple of poems. And they weren’t horrible.  I’ll try to write more of them. I very much enjoyed the process of getting them on the page.

I’ve never written a book review—but a professor of mine said I should be writing them.  The idea makes me a little nervous.  Part of my problem is that I don’t tend to get to contemporary stuff quickly enough. It is already mid-2012 and I’ve only just started Murakami’s 1Q84.  The early part of 2012 was spent with Peter Matthiessen’s Shadowlands, and then a couple of days on Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I haven’t been reading anything that I could review. That is about to change, though.  The new John Irving came out May 8th, and I expect to read it cover to cover in no time at all—and draft a review. Don’t know where I’ll send it, but I’ll find somewhere. Again, I wouldn’t have the guts to try this if it hadn’t been for the genre jumping I’ve done thanks to that required class.

Contest News

Last night I got word that my entry in GMU’s Virginia Downs Poetry Award contest—“At the River House, In January”—received an honorable mention from judge Sally Ball.  I feel honored to have been recognized, and very, very happy.

Sally Ball is the author of Annus Mirabilis, which was selected for the 2004 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize.

MFA in a Box?

Today I skimmed John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (a book I already read a couple of years ago) with the idea that I might spend a year or so studying it after graduating from my MFA program.  I have decided that I’ll not only read it, I’ll do every exercise in it.  Although I feel ready to be finished with graduate school, I don’t want to let go of the learning process, and the Gardner book goes over virtually everything a beginning fiction writer needs to know. Have I already learned a lot of it in my MFA program? Yes, of course.  Will it hurt to go over it again with John Gardner? No.

It occurred to me as I flipped through the book that one could engage in a “Do It Yourself” MFA with it and have more than a little success.  (This assumes that you read lots of great fiction on your own and don’t need professors to introduce you to Homer or Hemingway. That writers should read is given.) The book goes over pretty much all of the mistakes beginning writers can make. In other words—for the most part at least—it teaches you what not to do.  This jives with what I’ve come to believe about the teaching of writing: you can’t really teach writers how to be creative, or how to come up with ideas, but you certainly can teach them how to avoid common pitfalls such as the inartful use of modifiers or overuse of the passive voice. For the record, being taught what not to do has improved my writing 100 percent. An MFA program with a good faculty can rescue you from making lots of mistakes. I’m grateful to my professors for saving me from many years of banging my head against a wall.

Of course Creative Writing programs—and the MFA degree itself—are controversial. I’ve seen quite a dialogue about this out there on the net—most of it surrounding the question of whether writing can be taught.  I’ve just given my opinion on that, but you can read about the controversy if you want to. A good place to start might be “Show or Tell: Should creative writing be taught?”—an article by Louis Menand that came out in the New Yorker just after I registered for “Forms of Fiction” at George Mason in 2009. You can read that piece HERE.

I don’t want to offer an opinion on whether anyone reading this should get an MFA or not—that’s a discussion that should take place over a bottle of wine. But clearly I think writing can be taught—and I’m offering up the John Gardner book as an alternative to the pursuit of a degree.  If you have neither the time nor the money for an MFA (or if you fail to get into a program with your first round of applictions) I want you to know that the Gardner could teach you much of the same stuff.

Cross-Pollination for Artists

I recently got to musing about what I think of as cross-pollination when Tin House buddy Alan Heathcock posted something on Facebook about watching Kurosawa’s Ran.  He said that he felt inspired to be more ambitious with his novel as a result of viewing such a brutal, deep, and beautiful film. (As an aside, this is not surprising—Alan’s work is brutal, deep and beautiful, too—go buy a copy of Volt, his short story collection).

Great writers often find inspiration—or lessons—in other art forms.  In an interview that appeared in the New Yorker Hemingway said: “In the first paragraphs of Farewell, I used the word ‘and’ consciously, over and over the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint.  I can almost write like Mr. Johann sometimes—or, anyway, so he would like it.”  That opening to A Farewell to Arms has taught me more about writing than all of the conferences I’ve attended put together.  I read it again and again, soaking up all I can about how to craft beautiful sentences.  But I don’t have any Bach in the house. I think I’ll change that—today.  And pick up a copy of Rashomon at the same time.