Category Archives: Reading

Summer is the Time to Finish Reading All the Unfinished Books

Books!I have a lot of books that I’ve started, but for many different reasons never got around to finishing. Many of them are Christmas presents that I started during the holiday break but put down again shortly after the semester started because schoolwork and teaching overwhelmed my schedule. There are short story collections with dogeared pages where I stopped, and novels with a bookmark still stuck at Chapter Six, and poetry collections with coffee stains where I left off.

To be clear, I appreciate the books as gifts. I went into writing because I love reading. But it’s easy to lose track of time and even easier to start more than I have time to finish. To be greedy, or at least unrealistic. Also I was assigned thirty books between three classes this last semester. Most were good, but it’s difficult to make time for leisurely reading when I have to make arguments about three books a week.

Until August, I hereby vow not to buy any new books. My summer reading list will consist only of books I’ve started reading but never finished, the various gifts and books I bought with the intention of reading in my spare time (back when I believed in such silly things). I have Kim Barnes’s first memoir In the Wilderness, for example, and a few critical theory books I got this last year to catch up on The Discourse. Yesterday I finished Matt Cashion’s Last Words of the Holy Ghost, a gift from two years ago, and now I’m going to finish Precarious Life by Judith Butler, which I started last month for a paper.

I can’t promise that I won’t start-without-finishing books in the future, but this summer, I hope to make amends for years and years of this moral failing on my part.

-jk

 

The Dogsitting Writing Residency

Two dogsCommensalism or mutual benefit is a constitutive premise of housesitting, or maybe an enabling fiction. The housesitter is apt to recognize the opportunity as a private windfall, and the pleasure is tandem: first in his own dis-habituation, and then in the adoption of a new readymade home, a vacated life to try on. With the extra keys on his chain, the housesitter leaves work on a different train or by a new road, becomes a local in the café or dogpark, creates or stars in fantasies grown out of his new neighbors’ notice.
-Brian Blanchfield, “On Housesitting,” from Proxies.

Like a lot of writers, I’ve never had a writing residency. Applications for residencies are expensive and highly competitive, and travel is even more expensive and time-consuming. Like a lot of writers, I don’t have the time or resources to travel to another country and write for a month, as much as I want to. But I can construct my own version of a residency with occasional opportunities and a little creativity.

For example, I’m currently dog-sitting for some relatives in Pullman, Washington, just six miles from Moscow but in a subtly different environment. Pullman is full of hills and mosquitoes, whereas Moscow is comparatively flat and full of earthworms. I’m in charge of a few tasks around the house, cleaning, taking out the trash on trash days, but most importantly I’m in charge of two good but regularly loud dogs. It’s been a week so far, and they are starting to get used to me.

I also have access to a large table, the internet, a coffee maker, and a view of the neighborhood. It’s not a real writing residency; I’m not funded to go wander the hills of Pullman and get acquainted with the local mosquitoes, and the dogs’ needs, of course, take precedence over writing. But it’s a chance to use my time wisely.

Since settling in last Saturday, I’ve revised one essay, written another essay, submitted fifteen various essays and stories to journals, and read a handful of essays from various collections (out of order like a heretic). By the time I leave Pullman, I’ll have been productive. I don’t have much of an excuse not to be.

This isn’t exactly a vacation, though, not a real one. Everything is borrowed and temporary. Everything comes with a caveat that I’m a stranger. I’ve been thinking about Brian Blanchfield’s essay about housesitting for friends and colleagues. The notion that housesitting is trying on another life is apt. This is a life I’m not used to, one I have to learn, and am responsible for maintaining in the absence of this life’s real inhabitants. I’m not quite a guest, nor a visitor, and also not exactly a steward.

Stranger still is that Pullman in May is very green, and it’s been rainy and overcast but also somewhat warm, and I wandered around town the other day between showers, passing neighborhoods filled with so many plants that I sometimes didn’t realize there were houses, and as such the city keeps reminding me of Galway, Ireland. I even found an Irish pub downtown, something I haven’t seen since living in Lincoln. I went in for a drink, wishing I could stay, or bring my laptop and write and read in the corner and be moody with the dark wood decorum around me. But I couldn’t stay, because this isn’t a real residency.

This place, in its slight and uncanny differences too subtle to classify but too monumental to miss, makes me want to travel, to break out of my long-established routine, to be the one who needs a housesitter for a change. I know this will never happen, for a lot of reasons. But I can still accomplish as much as a real residency with what little I have. And of course I’ll never say no to access to dogs. Just look at them.

-jk

 

Making Room for More Books

BooksYou can never have too many books, unless you have too few bookshelves. Recently, I’ve accumulated about three dozen more books than I had at the beginning of the year, but I’m not ready to get a new bookshelf. I don’t have room for one in my apartment, unless I put a small bookshelf in the shower or above the toilet or next to the heaters, and all of those options have their pitfalls (water, fire, weird smells).

So, I sat down in front of my bookshelves and pulled out a handful of books that I no longer need or want, for the foreseeable future. Mostly, I chose books I had purchased for past English classes as an undergrad and from my MA program. Others were books I bought, read, used, and simply have to sacrifice now. It became easy to identify books I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It was harder to pull them out and not identify a possible need each one. I’ve found uses for books I’ve forgotten about, or loaned them to others who could use them. Other books I want to reread when I have the time (whenever that will be, sometime down the road, possibly in sixty years). Soon, I had a small stack of books I was willing to donate to a local used bookstore for store credit.

I won’t be buying new books for a while. I already have plenty to read, for class and for pleasure. This semester, I have thirty books in total for classes, plus books for research projects for class assignments, plus whatever books I can read for fun. Last semester, I set out to familiarize myself with a few standard critical theory texts, but that has fallen by the wayside amid the novels, memoirs, biographies, essay collections, and cultural histories I’m reading this Spring.

I may need another bookshelf soon. When I moved to Moscow, I had five creative nonfiction books. Now, I have two shelves devoted to the genre I’m pursuing, and I have two more years in the program. It’s good to make room for the new and dispense with the old. It’ll be better to cultivate room for expertise.

I have a biography of Janis Joplin, a critical reflection on the Talking Heads album Fear of Music, and Rebecca Solnit’s collection of cultural biographies The Encyclopedia of Trouble of Spaciousness. I have John McPhee’s book about oranges (just oranges) and W. E. B. Du Bois’s biography of John Brown and Virginia Woolf’s unfinished memoir. I have Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son and James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew and Franz Kafka’s letter to his father. Creative nonfiction encompasses journalism, memoir, reflection, and criticism. I need an entire library of creative nonfiction to cultivate a proper expertise. Though I had to remove some books to make room for more, right now I think I have a pretty good start.

-jk

Reading and Road Trips

Crested ButteTwo weeks ago, I graduated from UNL with a Master’s degree in English. It is the result of two years of reading, writing, and writing about what I read. More importantly, I had the pleasure of spending time with the friends and colleagues I worked with this past year. To celebrate the end of the semester and our program, several folks in my graduate cohort took a vacation by driving from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a weekend next to a river. Soon, we will scatter and go our separate ways, and the slice of time we gave one another without responsibility, without the need to work for someone else, without tasks to fulfill, was a small slice of heaven (which is, as we all know, a place on Earth).

Right now, I have a summer of road trips planned ahead of me. I have been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Idaho, in Moscow (the fun Moscow). I’ll be driving there from Lincoln soon with part of my family, then through Montana and Idaho to visit a variety of relatives, then back to Flagstaff, Arizona, before driving back to Montana and Idaho a month later. I’ll be spending a lot of time in a car.

When a handful of English Majors go on a road trip, they take books with them, and for me it’s always been that way. As long as I can remember, I’ve taken long road trips every summer from Arizona across the Rockies to Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California, and I’ve always taken a book with me. One summer, I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Another summer, I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. On this most recent road trip, I read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara, and to continue my step in the left direction through summer reads, I think I’ll take along Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, which I hear is a pleasant beach read.

I’ve spent the last two years reading more books than I expected, various novels, historical texts, books on theory, books on the Russian Revolution of my own volition, craft essays, and several Nigerian plays. It is telling that, on my first break from grad school, I continued to read. The same is true of my friends who went to Crested Butte.

I have a lot going on this summer, much to look forward to and much to fear. I could blog about going to a new graduate program in creative writing or the college-industrial complex after surviving it for two more years or moving to a new state again. But right now the only things I want to do are read and spend time (reading) with my friends. I even hear talk of a Kafka/Marxist reading group in the making.

-jk

All the Great Writers I Don’t Want to Be

Stay in Designated AreaNaturally, writers compare authors’ works to one another. This is useful in workshops, reviews, and literary criticism, and I think it’s inevitable. Writer friends of mine draw inspiration from Ernest Hemingway, others from Cormac McCarthy, and others from detective fiction, and I can see this inspiration in their writing, not as plagiarism but as influence.

More and more, stories I’ve written have been compared to writers I have never read. At a recent conference reading, my nonfiction was compared to Stephen Wright and George Saunders, and I had to embarrassingly admit that I was unfamiliar with their work. Multiple friends, whose opinions I love and respect, have compared my prose to that of David Foster Wallace, another I have never read.

To my surprise, nothing I’ve written has ever been compared to those who inspire me. Maybe that’s a good thing. I know the writers I love, but peers haven’t identified that influence, even when I’ve quite consciously imitated their styles.

My earliest literary influence was Douglas Adams, whom I read in middle school and spent the next four years mildly stealing from. I’ve also been inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Lately, I’ve found inspiration in short story collections like Monique Proulx’s Aurora Montrealis, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and Pamela Painter’s The Long and Short of It. I also draw inspiration from John Steinbeck and David Eagleman, who blend science, philosophy, and fiction, and the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape from a Leper Colony never ceases to inspire me, and neither does Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

It’s not that I want to be compared to these writers. Such a request would be too pretentiously egocentric, even for the pretentious ego-driven beast I so obviously am. But I am surprised.

I’m also distraught by the frequency with which my work is compared to David Foster Wallace. I don’t want to be compared to yet another depressed white male author who died by suicide, because it’s too close to home for me. What will I get from a writer I’m apparently so similar to? If I read Infinite Jest and hate it, what will that say about my own writing? Even worse, what if I love it without question? I want what I read to challenge my style, not reinforce it.

Was David Foster Wallace a perfectionist like me? Did he worry that he would die without making an impact, like me? Did he secretly resent himself for being a writer because such a profession requires both ego and humility, both of which are difficult for an introverted perfectionist to simultaneously possess, like me? I don’t know. I don’t want to know.

I also don’t want the comparisons to stop, because I want my friends and colleagues to be honest about my work. But so many comparisons to a writer that some of my heroes love and others hate has made me want to avoid reading anything by DFW. I can’t change what others see in my writing, but I know what writing I find pleasure in, and so far I find the most pleasure in being surprised. Maybe I’ll sit down and chug through Infinite Jest, but it won’t be anytime soon.

-jk

Getting Over the Beats

on-the-road

“We’re all golden sunflowers inside, bae.” -Allen Ginsberg, probably

In high school, I took a creative writing elective, and the teacher assigned numerous Beat Generation authors. We read sections of Dharma Bums and “Howl” and numerous Jack Kerouac poems. It turns out that the influence of the Beats on a youngboredsmallwhitemale is that he starts wearing black button-up shirts and fantasizing about expensive liquor. After reading On the Road the following summer, I spent a great deal of time fantasizing about drinking absinthe on road trips through the desert at night while listening to something called bop. I bought used jazz records that I listened to once, maybe twice.

I thought about rebelling, but I was convinced that the key to rebellion was originality, and just about everything had been done before. I learned the value of originality from the Beats, who were apparently the very first people to realize that dharma and karma fall under the category of “hip.” I learned more from various articles summarizing the Beat Generation that I found online to save time, and it was there that I discovered how powerful single  arbitrary out-of-context half-cited quotes can be, even with no subsequent explanation. I thought about growing out my hair, learning how to sculpt with metal, driving a motorcycle, making out with trees, but they had all been done before.

As time went on, I encountered other writers and poets who influenced me in more nuanced, healthier ways. Had I kept up with my Beat fixation, I might have grown up to the kind of person who uses Kerouac quotes to make myself feel better about spending fifteen dollars on one local IPA at a bar I frequent only because the regular server is an aspiring country saxophonist named Cynthia. Or I could have become the kind of teacher who wears skinny dungarees and Pink Floyd T-shirts with holes in the front and sits on the desk telling his students that Jesus and Steinbeck were both Zen masters who shared some sweet flashbacks to one another.

I still dig the Beats sometimes, but that scene has passed. I’m still not sure what kind of writer I am, but I can’t be a Beat, or any other writer from the past. It’s better to write for and from the present. I’ve almost entirely moved on, man.

-jk

In the Tradition of Poems for Dogs

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Recently, I read Andre Alexis’s novel Fifteen Dogs. Among the many delightful things in the novel (that it starts with the gods Hermes and Apollo in a bar in modern-day Toronto, that the characters are mostly sentient dogs, that it’s filled with excellent descriptions and dog-drama) is that one of its main dog characters, Prince, becomes a poet who uses a unique poetic form intended to make sense to both humans and dogs.

The French poet Francois Caradec invented this form of poetry for dogs, and Alexis lends him credit for its invention. The form requires the sound of a dog’s name to be embedded in the poem. In this way, dogs will hear their name if the poem is read aloud, and respond in their dogly way by wagging their tails and analyzing the poem from a critical dog studies perspective.

An example from the novel, for the dog named Prince, is as follows:

“Longing to be sprayed (the green snake
writhing in his master’s hand),
back and forth into that stream–
jump, rinse: coat slick with soap” (Alexis 81)

The name Prince can be heard in the words “jump, rinse,” and supposedly a dog named Prince will hear it in the poem. The rest, apparently, will be the usual human nonsense Prince is used to hearing by now.

I wrote a poem in this form for my own dog, Pete, who has seasonal allergies and enjoys scratching his face on various surfaces, including people:

Rough carpet scratches
snatch up every face-itch
on the floor, sensations
to make easy sleep. Eat, sniff, dream
until the next itch, then scratch.

Do you have a dog? A pet? Write them a poem and see what they think.

-jk

Alexis, Andre. Fifteen Dogs. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2015