Category Archives: Reading

Interviewing one of my literary role models

still lifeRegardless of the field in which you work, you’ve probably identified a role model or two. It may be your boss (lucky you!), a beloved professor, a family friend or a star in the field.

One of mine is Anna Quindlen. Her nonfiction work for the New York Times and Newsweek and the resulting collection of columns paint a portrait of a smart, informed woman who uses her pen to engage the world around her. Quindlen is award winning—she received a Pulitzer in 1992 for her Times column “Public and Private”—but she’s not exclusively a “career woman.” She’s also a mom and a wife whose family seem to be at the heart of her world, judging by the way she writes about them in her columns and book dedications. (As I recently finished “Rise and Shine”—one of the few Anna Quindlen books I hadn’t read—I marveled at the dedication to her daughter Maria. “Fearless, powerful, utterly amazing. I want to be you when I grow up.”)

I’m a fairly young woman and a journalist, but I also love essays (“How Reading Changed My Life” was my introduction to Quindlen’s work) and fiction. I’m fortunately surrounded by people whose paths show me that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for life as a woman, whether you stay at home with children or work an office job—or something in between. And I’m also lucky to have the careers of such women as Quindlen and Nora Ephron for inspiration.

So when I persuaded my editor at BookPage to let me send a few questions Quindlen’s way on the occasion of her latest novel’s publication, one of the first things I asked was about her own female role models. You can read how she answered–as well as the rest of our discussion–at BookPage.com, and you can read my review of “Still Life with Bread Crumbs” in the February issue of BookPage. (The book was published today, and it’s my favorite Quindlen novel yet.)

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So, I did this today.

I’ve published 542 posts on this blog over the course of 10-and-a-half years (this entry will make No. 543). That’s a lot of creative output, especially for a hobby, and I’ve long wished for an aesthetically pleasing way to capture those words in print. Years ago, I kespt a running Word Document with those entries, and I periodically printed and clipped them into a three-ring binder. That worked OK, but it wasn’t precisely what I was after.

Last month I learned my daydreams could be fulfilled by the Espresso Book Machine. I received a press release announcing that a local Books-A-Million would install an EBM, which allows for on-demand printing of a variety of books as well as self-publishing options. My interest was piqued, and after I told her I wanted an excuse to use the machine, the publicist for the launch party suggested I print a copy of my blog.

Genius!

Today, that dream became reality. I spent about an hour at the bookstore, working with the technician to ensure that my PDFs met specifications and then watching my book being printed. It was a remarkably simple process, although I must confess I had a few advantages. One, I work in publishing, and so I was already familiar with the process of setting up a PDF. Two, my sister is a photographer and was willing to design the cover for me. (I promise you, it wouldn’t look nearly as professional if I’d taken the project into my own hands!)

I spent a week fussing over the pages, determining which entries to include and which to leave out. (Ultimately, I went for a near-completionist approach. I omitted a few password-protected entries for which I no longer recall the password and a few memes.) I decided to use the font this blog theme utilizes, and then I decided which photos to leave in and which to delete. I wrote an about-the-author blurb (awkward!) and told Cheryl what I hoped to have on the cover. And then I dumped my files onto a USB drive and took them to Books-A-Million.

The final project cost about $39–$20 for the set up and $16 for the printing, plus sales tax. I decided to make this a one-time-only run; while I was eager to hold my blog in printed form, I have no interest in distributing it to others.

And I’ve got to say, it was worth it. I giggled with delight when the book came off the press, and I’ll be working on excuses to use this device again.

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You can live it up, live it up all over town

I posted this on Facebook earlier today, but I thought it merited repeating.

Libraries and E-Lending: The ‘Wild West’ of Digital Licensing?

I’m newly interested in ebooks, but this story stood out to me for another important reason: Earlier this week, a friend emailed after listening to this piece and expressed her concern about the future of libraries. Could libraries become ebook services more than physical locations? What would that mean for literacy? She asked for recommendations on how she can support our local libraries, and I suggested joining Friends groups (I’m a friend of Birmingham Public Library and Emmet O’Neal Library), volunteering, serving on library boards (I’m on BPL’s YP board) and donating. I’m honored to serve my local libraries in these capacities, and I hope that you, too, will read and support whatever matters most to you.

Today’s subject line comes from Escape Club’s “Wild Wild West.” Because why not?

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The Straightener

I don’t know much about poetry. (OK, there’s a lot I don’t know much about.) But at some point during my tenure at the Cullman Times, I stumbled across an interview with former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and it resonated with me. Though I didn’t read even a line of his work for years, I copied a few sentences of that interview and taped them to my computer monitor as motivation. Though I’m on my third job since that time, I’ve carried that paper with me from office to office.

“The real thrill is composition. To be kind of down on your hands and knees with the language at really close range in the midst of a poem that is carrying you in some direction that you can’t foresee… It’s that sense of ongoing discovery that makes composition really thrilling and that’s the pleasure and that’s why I write.”

Years later, I learned that Collins was coming to speak in Birmingham as I edited an article about the event. Finally, I began reading the words he labors over. I attended his reading a few months later, and was overwhelmed by the range of emotion his work invokes.

Tonight I’m sitting at a bar, solo, because the friend I was supposed to meet got caught at work. No problem; I had the newest Collins collection in my purse. And as I read the second poem, “The Straightener,” Collins again cut through the every day and pricked my heart.

“Today, for example, I will devote my time
to lining up my shoes in the closet,
pair by pair in chronological order

and lining up my shirts on the rack by color
to put off having to tell you, dear,
what I really think and what I now am bound to do.”

I don’t know much about poetry, but I know I recognized myself in that.

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I closed my eyes, I kept on swimming

My reading habits are a reflection of my interior life. An average year sees 80-plus books pass through it. But the past few years have been busier, more exhausting than usual. Where I normally begin reading as soon as I get home, and spend an hour or so with a book before sleep, I’ve found myself returning home later and too often so exhausted that I need someone to tell me a story rather than engaging it myself. (Thank God for This American Life and The Moth.)

And so, recent years have been down years for reading. In 2009, I read 62 books. With seven days to go, I’m only at 50 books for this year.

As we enter the last week of 2010, I’m reflecting on the 12 months that are drawing to an end and dreaming about what I hope to accomplish in the 12 ahead. Invariably, that look back includes a variety of lists: the concerts I attended, the funniest things people said, the books I’ve read, my favorite albums of the year. And though earlier this week I spent two hours on a blog entry about those albums (to be posted Dec. 31 on Birmingham Box Set), I’ve never made a list of the books I most enjoyed.

I read fewer books this year, but I revisited some great ones. Songbook by Nick Hornby, Here is New York by E.B. White, Looking for Alaska by John Green, When Harry Met Sally by Nora Ephron and See You in a Hundred Years by Logan Ward kept me company this fall. (I can’t tell you why–because I don’t know–but I particularly craved the company of familiar pages during the autumn.)

Three of the best books I read for the first time in 2010 came with similarly strong recommendations, at the hands of friends and family. I deliberated over which Billy Collins collection to purchase when he read at Hoover Library’s Southern Voices conference in February. I’d just finished Ballistics and The Trouble with Poetry, both of which I’d borrowed from the library, but felt I needed to own one of his books as a memento of the reading. (If you don’t think a poetry reading can bring you near to tears and make you laugh, you haven’t heard Collins.) My friend and book columnist Susan Swagler recommended Sailing Alone Around the Room. Collins’ carefully worded observations on everyday life kept me company for the better part of the year. Several of my favorite poems filled the final pages, which made this especially satisfying to complete.

The problem with slim books is sometimes they’re finished all too quickly, and that was the case with How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen. I read this essay collection during the day after my birthday party, where I received it as a gift from the Donlon family. It immediately found a place on the shelf among my favorite, most-trusted books. It will be a book I turn to time and again, and I loved it so much that I gave my mother a copy for Christmas.

My sister gave me a copy of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose, because she wanted to know what I thought of it. Roose left Brown University for a semester to attend Liberty University, one of America’s most conservative Christian colleges. Though my college experience was in many ways different from what Roose experienced at Liberty–I attended Florida State, after all–some of his encounters reminded me of my own campus ministry experiences. Roose’s conclusions weren’t revolutionary. He learned that Liberty kids struggle with many of the same challenges as his friends back at Brown, and Roose found himself enjoying prayer so much that he continued the ritual when he returned to Brown. But those lessons were revolutionary to him. I’ve often wished I could tell my college-age self to take a more complete view of herself (primarily) and those around her. It seems that’s exactly what Roose’s experiment taught him.

William Zinsser’s account of his writing life was a simple pleasure. But it affected me so strongly that as soon as I completed Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher, I took out pen and paper and wrote him a thank-you note. (Perhaps because I hope to have so many stories to tell after a long career doing the same?) I was delighted, though not surprised, when a reply arrived in my mailbox weeks later.

I am surprised, however, to realize only one novel found its way to the books I most enjoyed in 2010. An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin is a compelling depiction of New York’s art world, as seen through the experiences of a young art dealer and her art writer friend. Martin writes beautifully of the paintings and art objects that populate the story, and the plot itself was so engrossing that it made me late to work the morning I finished. I only had 20 pages to go, and I just had to complete them. It had been a long time since a book made me tardy.

Although the powers-that-be may prefer that I arrive at the office promptly at 8 a.m., I hope 2011 brings many more books that make me struggle to leave the house. I hope 2011 brings many more books, period. My to-read list grows and grows.

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The weight of words

Reading material is piled on my bed, and the stack seems to have grown each day this week. It’s that time of month, I suppose, as new magazines account for nearly half of my to-read-nowish list. Esquire arrived yesterday, I picked up New York magazine’s Reasons to Love New York issue earlier this week and the Oxford American’s Southern music issue takes time to digest. I’m also overwhelmed by books: a collection of essays sent by a friend, a chef’s memoir, Flannery O’Connor nonfiction that I have been dipping into at a leisurely pace.

I know how I’ll spend my Christmas vacation.

I spent this morning discussing the value of words with a dear friend. Beginning next month, Cory and I will lead a writing and letterpress printing workshop, which we’ve titled The Weight of Words. The eighth-grade girls in the workshop will write essays of belief, and we’ll end the workshop by letterpressing small posters of their six-word thesis statements.

Cory and I are letterpress aficionados (she’s a printer, I’m a collector of sorts), and we were both drawn to the art form in part because of the literal weight it gives to words. Even if you don’t ink the press’ rollers, this form of relief printing leaves a mark on the paper. The care required to set the type and the impression it makes on the paper are an appropriate homage to the written word.

We left our planning session energized, eager to share our love of art and writing with these young girls. And as I continue to plow through my ever-growing stack of reading material, I’m grateful that others share their words with me.

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I want more, impossible to ignore

Last weekend, I did something that felt quite unnatural to me. I exhibited considerable restraint during a book sale.

I’ve written about the Friends of Emmet O’Neal Book Sale each year since my first visit. The first year I was so overwhelmed by the number of books I bought, I told everyone about it. The second year, I bought even more books and became a Friend myself.

As shelving began for this year’s book sale, I prepared to move from my one bedroom garage apartment to a three bedroom house. I borrowed the library’s method for moving books. On the final day of the sale, patrons can fill a paper grocery sack with books for $10. It’s a perfect moving method, I found, because you can’t fill the bags so heavy that you can’t lift them. If you do, they rip. So I bagged my books and shuttled them between homes, sorting them into categories and, later, unpacking those categories into their own rooms.

The kitchen cabinets of my new house are now home to fiction and YA/children’s literature. Cookbooks decorate the top of my food cabinet. There’s a collection of religion books stacked artfully under an end table in my living room (topped, inexplicably, by a Beatles book). Art books keep magazines company atop the coffee table. I quickly filled the guest room bookcase with nonfiction. My bedroom, of course, is host to my favorite books: Alabama authors, writing books, my own journals and, on their own shelf, a collection of my favorite books and brand new (to me) books.

My roommate has been very patient as my books have taken over the house.

But I can recognize a problem when I see it, and I knew I didn’t need to go crazy (again) at this year’s book sale. I’ve barely made a dent in reading books from the previous two years! So I browsed the shelves more thoughtfully, selecting only books I couldn’t pass on, plus a few for friends and family. And I’ve already finished two of my purchases.

Maybe next year I’ll unleash the book buying beast again. In the meantime, on with the reading.

2010 Friends of Emmet O’Neal Library Book Sale purchases

  1. Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund
  2. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
  3. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  4. Essays of E.B. White
  5. Best of the Oxford American
  6. Evangeline and Selected Tales and Poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  7. 1901 Alabama Constitution with Introductory Commentary

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It’s not as if it’s a matter of will

The plan was simple. One year, no book buying (save for a three book exception, meant to stave off the seductive appeal of the forbidden). After filling my backseat with purchases from one book sale, I thought I needed a break from book buying. Otherwise I may never get caught up on my book reading.

That worked well for a time. I bought my first book at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., a place that begged for just such an exception. The Paris Review Interviews Vol. 1 is the perfect souvenir for this literary town. Weeks later, exception two came into play: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, on sale at Seattle’s Elliot Bay Books.

Then there was last night. Yes, last night brought book three. And four. And five. All the way up to 12. And I don’t feel a bit bad about it.

Technically, I fell off this particular wagon months back. I spotted three hardback copies of John Green’s Looking for Alaska on a sale table, and I couldn’t leave them lying there. I purchased all three, confident that I could find them homes. (I already owned two copies of the book, myself.)

But that didn’t count, not really. The books weren’t for me, after all. Neither was the hardback copy of Corduroy, purchased for a friend’s daughter’s birthday last month. By those rules, one of the books I bought last night doesn’t count either. When I saw a $3 hardback copy of a Charles Schulz biography, I knew my 16-year-old brother had to have it.

So then I’m only at 11 books for the year. Is that better?

This is what happened: It’s been a busy summer, one full of change. I haven’t been reading much as a result (a very strange circumstance, indeed). When a friend emailed yesterday, asking if I wanted to go to another library book sale, I said yes. I was ready for a little rule-breaking. (The fact that this counts as rebellion in my world is likely indicative of how big a nerd I am.)

We met at her house for a glass and a half of wine then headed out, hoping for a couple of good buys. Though I exhibited a fair amount of discretion, I still took home 10 books totaling $15. I broke the rules, and my only regret is not knowing which book to read first.

  1. Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman (The only Klosterman I didn’t own.)
  2. The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank (Often referenced as the original chick lit, and known for its author’s huge advance. I’m curious.)
  3. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  4. The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
  5. My Losing Season by Pat Conroy
  6. Proof by David Auburn
  7. The Little, Brown Handbook (Buying a 1986 handbook from a publisher I admire surely marks me as a full-fledged word nerd. Even more so if I read it. But it seems like a handy reference, doesn’t it?)
  8. That’s What I Like (About the South) Edited by George Garrett and Paul Ruffin
  9. Schulz and Peanuts by David Michalies
  10. Southern Living 1981 Annual Recipes (My mother bought me a copy of this book in 1981, the year I was born. I lost my original copy in the midst of too many moves and have been hunting another since. The discovery was made even better when I realized the book was only $1!)

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Stranded in a fog of words

On Jan. 3, I filled my iPod.

I didn’t see that milestone coming. When I finally bought an iPod two years ago, I intentionally purchased a model I thought large enough for my ever-growing music collection, but not so large that its capacity would go to waste. I expected the device to break before I ever needed more than 30GB.

When I added the albums that pushed my music collection over that 30GB mark, of course I panicked. “I need a new iPod!” I thought. “Do I have money to bump up to the next size? What am I going to do?”

I quickly came to my senses and realized I was being ridiculous. I love being able to carry every album I own everywhere I go, but I don’t listen to all 17.7 days worth of music. I would be scared to count how many of those 6,352 songs I’ve not listened to even once. So maybe the problem isn’t that my iPod is too small, I concluded. Maybe I’m the problem.

I cleared enough music off my computer to ensure my iPod and iTunes would sync, and in the weeks since I’ve continued the spring cleaning. I only listen to one track from Amy LaVere’s album; though so many people loved it, it never really clicked with me. Off it goes. I load albums I’m sent for review, but if they don’t make the cut? Delete. 

The following weekend I applied the same mentality to my apartment. I have more clothes than I need, and so many that I don’t wear. My trunk was quickly overflowing with bags earmarked for Goodwill. My bathroom was next on the list. I had developed a tidy collection of samples: shampoos, lotions and anti-aging creams (lots and lots of anti-aging creams). Just because I might need this cream someday doesn’t mean I need to store it today (besides, by the time someday rolls around, the cream would have expired). I bagged them up and took them into work, where my coworkers quickly claimed the products and put them to use.

It felt good, this cleansing ritual. And it’s ongoing; I’ve got clothes I’ve set aside, waiting a few days to see if I really can part with them. If I don’t wear it, why do I own it? And I’ve continued to edit my iTunes as new music comes in.

But there’s one area of my life where I can’t seem to break the hoarding cycle. Books.

Last weekend was the Friends of Emmet O’Neal Library Book Sale, and I certainly did my part to support the library. By the end of the weekend I had bagged up 80 books: 35 for one of my best friends, 44 for me and a crossword puzzle book for my grandfather.

And I’m unashamed. It’ll take me a while to read all of those books, especially combined with my already-lengthy to read list. And OK, I’ve instituted a book buying fast: I am not allowed to buy books again until Feb. 22, 2010 (or next year’s Emmet O’Neal book sale, whichever comes first). I need to read through some of what I already own, and no doubt I’ll continue to acquire more freebies. (I’ve got a knack for it, well, a knack and Paperback Swap.) I’m allowing myself three exceptions, because you just never know when something fabulous will be published. I hope to have read at least a significant chunk of this year’s book sale purchases by this time next year.

Even so, books are one thing that I just can’t get enough of.

Book Sale Bargain Day Finds:

  1. Beowulf translated by Burton Raffel
  2. Travels with Barley: A Journey through Beer Culture in America by Ken Wells
  3. The Archivist by Martha Cooley (OK, I totally bought this book based on its cover.)
  4. The Best American Magazine Writing 2002 
  5. Name All the Animals by Alison Smith
  6. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  7. The Best American Essays 1990 edited by Justin Kaplan
  8. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  9. I Feel Bad about My Neck by Nora Ephron (OK, I’m too young for this book. But I like Nora Ephron.)
  10. Watership Down by Richard Adams (My book club read this a few months ago. I … didn’t.)
  11. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (See above.)
  12. Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert
  13. The Reivers by William Faulkner
  14. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  15. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
  16. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
  17. The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom (Again I must confess: I bought it because of the cover. It has a date due card on it. And it talks about books.)
  18. The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle (Because I have friends who OBSESS over her work)
  19. Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology edited by Ishmael Reed
  20. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  21. Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
  22. Reading Rooms: America’s Foremost Writers Celebrate Our Public Libraries with Stories, Essays, Poems and Memoirs edited by Susan Allen Toth and John Coughlan
  23. Sister Age by MFK Fisher
  24. Ray in Reverse by Daniel Wallace (Because I dig Daniel Wallace)
  25. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  26. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
  27. Leaving Home by Garrison Keillor (I have, um, never read or even really listened to Garrison Keillor.)

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My fingers wrap around your words

Tonight I broke into a little dance when I left the library.

Sadly, that’s not an entirely unusual thing; I think it’s becoming an annual tradition. The occasion? The Friends of Emmet O’Neal Library Book Sale.

Last year was my first visit to the sale, and the trip resulted in the purchase of 36 books for $7. I’ve been talking about the event ever since.

My strategy this year was to begin with the Friends Preview Party on Thursday night, then return on Sunday for last-minute bargains. With my fellow bibliophile Monica in tow, I wrote my check to become a Friends member, grabbed a book tote and faced the books.

I intended to use today only for books that were absolute must-haves. I’d already snagged a few while volunteering with the Friends group over the past month, and I knew there would be plenty of classics left on Sunday. I’m running out of shelving space in my tiny apartment, and frankly I haven’t finished reading all of last year’s purchases. (Perhaps I should tally that number!) 

$54 later, I was set for the night. There was only one book in my stack that I questioned its must-have value, but it was a $2 purchase–so why not?

  1. Downtown Birmingham Architectural and Historial Walking Tour Guide by Marjorie White, the Birmingham Historical Society
  2. The Art of Eating by MFK Fisher (includes Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets) (one of the big finds of the evening! Can’t believe I only paid $2 for this)
  3. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
  4. Big Fish by Daniel Wallace (yes I’ve read it, but I didn’t own it)
  5. Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook by Alice Waters (this is the other big find!!!)
  6. Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar (I loved these books as a child!)
  7. A Thin Difference by Frank Turner Hollon (have read two of his books, big fan, plus he’s a Bama boy)
  8. The God File by Frank Turner Hollon
  9. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein (for $2. SERIOUSLY.)
  10. The New York Times Large Print Big Book of Easy Crosswords (for my grandfather!)
  11. Endless Feasts: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet edited by Ruth Reichl
  12. Early Days in Birmingham: A Printing of the Original Papers of the Pioneers Club whose Members were Eye-Witnesses to the Events of the Founding of the City (I just thought that was too cute to pass on! I love Birmingham history.)
  13. Somebody Told Me: The Newspaper Stories of Rick Bragg
  14. Leaving Birmingham by Paul Hemphill (one I’d been hunting for two years!)
  15. The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg
  16. Gilead by Marylynne Robinson
  17. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
  18. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

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