I haven’t posted about what I’m reading in a while and this is probably because I’m all over the place, reading three books at once. I prefer to read one book at a time, submerging myself completely in one voice, one plot, etc. But this kind of reading doesn’t fit into my life right now.
I did finish a novel a few weeks ago: Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, first published in 1925. Once considered a classic and now largely forgotten, it’s the story of Sara Smolinsky, a Jewish immigrant, who rebels against the traditional roles of women and the authority of her father. It’s set in the Lower East Side at the turn of the century, but what Yezierska says about poverty, the immigrant’s experience, and the “American Dream” seems to hold true even today, so if you haven’t read this novel, you should.
The books I’m currently reading are: The Best American Essays 2008, Writing Home by Cindy LaFerle, and The Middle of Everything by Michelle Herman. In the morning, to warm up my brain at the coffee shop, or to take a break from my memoir, I’ll read a few pages, or even a few paragraphs, of an essay from BAE. In the afternoon while I’m sitting in the car in front of Stella’s preschool with Zoë asleep in the back seat, I’ll read one of LaFerle columns or a few pages of Herman’s memoir.
Let me tell you what I love about Best American Essays. I love all those different voices and experiences, ways of seeing the world, stacked next to one another. I love the prose, discovering how someone else phrases the thought in my head. I love seeing a version of myself reflected in someone else’s experiences. And I was thrilled to discover that this newest collection begins with a mother’s story: Patricia Brieschke’s “Cracking Open,” an essay about the long hospitalization of Brieschke’s son, Ollie, when he was two weeks old. Her prose is so tight, her writing so immediate, that I felt I might vomit the first time I read it. (This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not. This short, desperate piece is full of heartbreak.)
BAE 2008 is full of gems: Bernard Cooper’s “The Constant Gardener” and Lauren Slater’s “Tripp Lake.” I read one, go back and read it again. It totally works for my current attention span.
LaFerle’s Writing Home works the same way. This book is a compilation of newspaper columns and short essays written over a twelve year period, most of them for The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak, Michigan. LaFerle’s voice is intimate and inviting, and the more I read, the better I feel I know and like her. It’s interesting because I’ve never read a print newspaper faithfully enough to fall in love with a columnist. But I do read blogs that way, and this book is like having the posts of one of my favorite bloggers printed and compiled. I can read one or several at a time, then put them down and come back a day or two later. It’s a perfect book for me right now.
I’ll report back on Herman when I finish The Middle of Everything. This book can be read a chapter at a time because its chapters are slightly essayistic, circling around a topic rather than pushing us along one narrative line. But I know that when I finish this book, the sum of Herman’s chapters will leave me with something larger than her story alone. She is a wonderful writer, her prose precise and engaging.
Revising the book is slow, very slow, but it’s making a difference. It’s amazing how much “stuff” I had in there because it was “good enough.” Now that I am retyping the whole thing, “good enough” is falling away. Not to mention that I am a much better writer than I was four years ago when I started writing it. 13 pages down, 298 to go.