Two months ago I interviewed Sarah Death, the translator of Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson, one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. In our newest issue of Front Porch Journal, I wrote a review of it as well. Check it out here.
Also, holy crap I overused the word “while” in that piece. Thankfully, I have editing permissions…
I am always fascinated by the way in which people choose what to read. There are so many books out there, sometimes it’s just completely overwhelming to me. I’ve written before about telling other people what to read and the hubris involved with that, as well as about how the book reviews I read are failing to really influence the way in which I choose books (expounded upon more in an essay for Full Stop), so I thought I would write an entry sharing some of the ways I make the decisions about what to read.
First of all, I highly recommend the website Goodreads, which I’ve talked about before. The site is invaluable when it comes to reminding me what I want to read, and it makes for a good repository for taking brief notes on what I liked/disliked about books I’ve read in the past. Right now my “to read” shelf on Goodreads runs about 200 books long, which is almost too big to be worth anything, but I still use it. It still has books I added to the list in 2011, but I’m hoping to rectify that this summer.
So, beyond that, here’s a rough list of the way I choose things to read:
- Obligations. If I need to read something for a class or for an essay/article I’m working on, this is the top priority. I also try to write a book review every 2-3 months, and that would fall under this category, although how I decide what to review (when I have a choice) is influenced primarily by #5 below.
- What’s so hot right now. I like talking about books with other people, so I bump books up to the front of my list if it’s something that a lot of people are reading. This got me to read ASoIaF, and it is the reason that I’ll be reading Station Eleven in the near future. What’s hot doesn’t just mean what’s new, though, just whatever is in the ether. It might take the form of looking through past winners of prizes, etc.
- Recommendations. These might be from friends I trust, or from reviews, or just authors who I’ve liked their previous work.
- Research. I usually have a topic or three I’m kicking around in my head, either for my personal life, a future article, or a book. I don’t read many books solely for this purpose–generally it’s a combination of research plus one of the three above–but it’s definitely an influence.
- Considerations. Beyond the above three, I try to make choices in my reading that broaden my horizons and work to counteract my biases. That means that I seek out works in translation and works by minority and female authors. I also try not to get into ruts where I’m reading tons of similar stuff, although that doesn’t happen to me often.
Here’s how it works in practice. A sampling of my summer reading list:
- Blackout by Sarah Hepola – Reviewing for The Rumpus. Chosen because it’s a memoir that’s also about a subject (blacking out while drinking) by a woman. I’m currently working on a book project that’s combination memoir/subject, so this fits several checkboxes. I finished it about a month ago and will hopefully have the review out soon. Spoilers: It was hilarious and smart as hell and wonderful.
- Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner and All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – Both classics by southern writers. I had only read As I Lay Dying by Faulkner and hadn’t read any of Warren. My loose connection to each: Faulkner’s book is loosely about legacy/genealogy, Warren grew up close to where I grew up.
- The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard and The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter – This is what happens to books people recommend me but then I don’t hear anything else about: they end up on my “to read” list for four years. These are my only remaining books from 2011. The first, my mother told me to read. The second, a judge of a short story contest said I should check out due to similarities in plot structure with my story.
- Doña Bárbara by Rómulo Gallegos – Gallegos was the first democratically elected president of Venezuela and a prolific novelist, which I think is just fascinating as hell. My wife is from Venezuela, and I’m always eager to learn more about the country. I’m still conflicted about whether I want to read a book by him or about him, but this is his most famous novel, so I’ll probably start here.
- Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames by Ian Bogost, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature by Espen Aarseth, and The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response by Wolfgang Iser – I gave a talk at a conference on categories of player-driven narrative choices in video games, and now I am turning that talk into a chapter-length work to submit for publication. These are three books I plan on reading to use as sources on the subject. All three (as well as several articles) were either suggested to me during the Q&A session of my talk or I pulled from the bibliographies of my co-panelists.
Quite the variety. Very male-heavy (only 2/9 authors are women) which I’m sad about and will seek to rectify with my subsequent selections. There are more, of course, sitting around my house waiting to be read, but these are the definites.
How do you make these decisions?
The weather in my area has been insane! Check out this graph of Austin’s Lake Travis’s water level. Be sure and check the boxes to be depressed about how, even with this inundation of rain, we’re still quite a ways from 2010.
Given that I love Full Stop and I also like to encourage book reviews to be a part of a conversation, you can read Sho Spaeth’s review of Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English here. My review is over at The Rumpus, and our conclusions did not line up, but our focuses were also a little different, so I think it’s an interesting pairing.
Pop Culture Happy Hour is my latest favorite podcast discovery. You should check it out.
First rule of successful blogging is to write regularly, and definitely to never go four months without a post.
No matter how many first weeks of the semester I go through, they always make me kind of excited. I’ve been addicted to fresh beginnings my whole life and being a perennial student and now an instructor gives me the opportunity to go through them twice a year. I’ll have a mostly new batch of students, I’ll be in new classes with mostly new professors and a few new classmates. I’ll have new shoes.
Drawing up my second semester’s syllabus, I thought about what I’d do differently. Definitely thinking more pragmatic than I was six months ago. For example, toward the end of last semester I felt lucky if even three or four students did the reading, so this semester I’m thinking about what I should do to raise that number. I’ve decided to address it by having less readings overall, but more reading responses, and each student is going to present on one reading during the semester. Another goal I have is to get my students to stand up at least once per classroom, even if I don’t have a reason for it besides to stand up and stretch. I noticed that anything that wakes them up some like this really improved the participation last semester.
At Texas State, there are two semesters of freshman English. The first is focused just on learning academic writing, but the second is focused on academic writing AND research. I’m pretty excited about moving on to the second one, as I feel like it’ll give me more of an opportunity to craft prompts that allow students to explore things that they might not otherwise contemplate. We’ll see what actually happens though.
My only serious New Year’s resolution was to read more women and more books in translation.
One upcoming thing I’d like to discuss: I’m presenting on choices in video game narratives at the national Pop Culture Association / American Culture Association conference in April. I’m curious to here any input on meaningful choices in video games. I’m focusing primarily on three types of changes: aesthetic (like Kentucky Route Zero), rhetorical (Spec Ops: The Line), and social (Fallout, Mass Effect). Are there equivalents to these kind of choices in other media? What choices were the most meaningful to you?
Same story as the last one, a review that got lost in shuffle.
Book: Animal Stories
Author: Max Evans, Illustrated by Keith Walters
University of Oklahoma Press, 440 pp., $24.95 paperback
Published September 2013
In an encounter between a worn-out cowboy, a cow and her newborn calf, and a pack of coyotes, you know who the bad guy is, right? In his new collection of stories—both fiction and nonfiction—Max Evans will show you that you’re wrong. Animal Stories is a distillation of the relationship between the west and its two- and four-legged inhabitants. It shows us the world through the eyes of animals that are hunted, ridden, herded, and loved, as well as people who metaphorically experience the same. Some pieces are told from a fictional character’s perspective: say, a cowboy or a prairie dog’s. Others are based on Evans’s own experience, and he’s the main character. You might worry how the transition between fiction and nonfiction works, but it’s smooth—easy to miss. Evans tells us in the introduction that he “did become aware early on that the main difference between true stories and fiction was simply this: fiction sometimes allows you to reveal a greater truth.”
It’s been over sixty years since Evans’s first novel, The Rounders, was published. Since then he’s added twenty-six other books to his credentials, and his work has been the inspiration for both movies and a television series. Before his writing career, Evans fought in World War II. Like Evans’s career, the writing collected in Animal Stories comes at you from a great distance and carries you across a lot of ground. The work spans Evans’s entire career, with pieces from the ‘50s to the newest having been written in 2007. Evans’s writing remains consistent throughout, and only the occasional repetitive detail tells the reader that these pieces weren’t originally intended to be read together.
The very first short story, “The Old One,” tells the tale of an aging mother prairie dog teaching her offspring how to survive the scary world, and the ever increasing presence of the “two-legged enemy.” Evans masterfully eases the reader into the prairie dog’s perspective by focusing on details and using language that lends itself to an instinct-based thought process, like describing a gunshot as a stick speaking or referring to predators as “the bobcat” or “the coyote.” Occasionally that immersion is tested by language that doesn’t quite fit—like the prairie dog describing the hole she lives in as “small”—but the quality of his writing elsewhere allows us to forgive these moments.
Later, in the nonfiction section of the book, Evans shares another story about teaching. In “The Cowboy and the Professor,” Evans’s friend Luther Wilson runs into a cowboy during a fishing trip. The two men spend the evening sharing food and stories, then alcohol, and at the end the audience is left unsure what’s next for the titular protagonists. Despite the dissonance in topics between “The Old One” and “The Cowboy and the Professor,” moving between Evans’s pieces is never jarring.
Luther Wilson also wrote the foreword to the collection, and he explains Evans’s ability to write animals so well as being a result of Evans’s experience as a hunter. Regardless of how much hunting inspired his writing, it’s obvious that Evans is a master observer, a skill used in both hunting and writing. He picks out tiny details from his experience in the southwest to bring everything to life, like when he describes cold night air as being “made of ice with a million flailing arms.” For all the details about the natural world that Evans gets right, though, the dialogue and emotional interactions between the human characters tends to fall flat. In a scene from “The Cowboy and the Professor,” Wilson shoots a rock with his .44 for target practice. He offers to let the cowboy shoot, but the cowboy declines on account of his horse getting nervous. A telling and believable detail, but Evans follows it up with “Luther could have seen the truth in that from a mile away,” blowing the scene out into unnecessarily melodramatic proportions.
Maybe this is why my favorite story in the collection is “A Man Who Never Missed.” Despite the main character being a man, the story is full of animalistic, primal energy. The dialogue is sparse, and the thoughts of Gus, the main character, are largely portrayed by actions. In many of the pieces of Animal Stories, the protagonists are at a turning point in their lives, and are often facing down what might be the end of the line. Gus is doing just that. As “the best deer hunter in the Hi-Lo Country,” Gus has found himself without a deer as the hunting season draws to a close. With the jeers of his fellow hunters ringing in his ears from the night before, he sets out on one last day of hunting. Evans turns the tension up a notch for this story, and at the end he leaves us wondering who the animals really are.
At 440 pages, Animal Stories is beefier than most collections. I’d recommend it to anyone who might be interested in a book that’s somewhere in between the genres western and nature literature. I’d add the caveat that, like a lot of collections that span an author’s career, the book isn’t one you should try to consume in a short period of time. Instead, be patient like the hunters and the hunted in the stories, and savor this collection of escapes into the real wild west.
I wrote this review last fall and it ended up not getting published due to editor error (he didn’t realize a review had already been published of it, and that it was almost a year old at the time). I figured I’d throw it on the blog instead of letting it slip into the void.
Chronicling a Ghost Town
Book: Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer: Thurber, Texas and the Company Store
Author: Gene Rhea Tucker
Reviewer: Graham Oliver
Thurber, Texas is a ghost town that sits on I-20, halfway between Fort Worth and Abilene. For forty years, from 1894 to 1934, Thurber appeared as a company coal town, flourished, and then withered away.
Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer: Thurber, Texas and the Company Store chronicles the brief history of Thurber, with a special emphasis paid to the role of the mercantile operations within the town. The Texas Pacific Mercantile and Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of the Texas Pacific Coal Company, operated company stores, utilities, saloons, and various other establishments for the residents of the town. Gene Rhea Tucker’s analysis of the operation depicts it as a crossroads in the fascinating relationship between laborers, the corporation, and the region. Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer uses the company store to touch upon bigger issues of racism, unionization, and corporate responsibility. Don’t let the overtly political tone of the foreword (which is labeled the “Plainsword” as a nod to this being a part of TTU Press’s “Plains Histories”)–the text itself goes out of its way to reserve judgment in the various conflicts, for the most part.
Tucker’s writing is best when it’s recreating what life was like in Thurber. It’s painstakingly researched, and is peppered with first-hand accounts of events in the town, including a fist-fight between the company president and a local businessman. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book, however, is the images. Photo after photo depict the locations and events described in the text, from a row a smiling faces in a saloon, to a building’s demolition after the town’s collapse. All the images fit well with the content, and tell an additional story of their own. Beyond the photos, the book itself is a work of art–the jacket and lettering are eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing.
Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer began as a master’s thesis, which accounts for the in-depth research. It’s well-sourced, and would serve as a secure jumping off point for additional inquiry. However, the fact that it was once a thesis brings baggage along with it. It’s thin, especially once you discount the space allotted to notes and photos. It repeats itself occasionally and gets bogged down in details. The biggest tragedy, though, is the near-complete lack of speculation, which would’ve helped the reader make more of a connection with the stream of facts, figures, and implications.
The book appeals to Texas history buffs, ghost town aficionados, and those interested in reading about a microcosm of big business issues. Although it might have better served as a section of a larger work, Tucker’s work makes the Thurber of a century ago come to life for his readers, which ultimately means the book is a success.
Photo album from thurbertexas.com – Link
Book reviews are on my mind. I have that piece about what might be wrong with the current state of book reviews up at Full Stop. Not too long ago, I wrote an entry on this site about being a good reader. I have one book review awaiting publication and two book reviews in the pipeline. Finally, Lee Klein had this fantastic essay published while I was out of town, and it really captured a lot of what I had been mulling over.
I love talking about what to read online. I’m not as great at it in person. Recently, I met one of my cohort for the creative writing graduate program, and he asked me what I’ve been reading lately. My mind went blank, and all I could think of was the fact that I had been reading A Song of Fire and Ice but that I definitely shouldn’t say that because I didn’t want to look uncool. I ended up saying it anyways because I made a decision that saying that series would be better than nothing, which was the only other thing I could think of.
Of course, I have read a lot more than ASoIaF lately, although none of it particularly stood out at that moment.
I think the whole process of deciding what to read and telling other people how they should make decisions about what to read is just fascinating. You have to have a certain amount of arrogance to assume that you have good taste enough to be a source of information on what to read. You have to take into account what the receiver of recommendations likes, and usually this is done in terms of other literary reference points. A friend who is a prolific reviewer recently said that a book was forgettable, but then recommended it as a good beach read, meaning a book’s enjoyment can change based on when it’s being read, not just who it’s being read by. Most book reviews I read don’t really try to capture those nuances, instead describing a book mostly in isolation besides the obligatory three lines of nodding to other literary works.
I wonder if part of the problem is that by setting apart genre and literary work, we have a hard time talking about the subgenres within literary fiction. (There are exceptions, of course. The Addiction Memoir, the Multi-Generational International Historical Fiction, the Timid Story with a Tiny Slice of Magic Realism, the Novel Loosely Based on a Recent Real World Event.) As you could guess, I find the label of literary fiction to be very problematic, and I think it actively hurts the lit community to wall themselves off from “genre fiction” for a semi-arbitrary reason. But that’s a topic for a different day.
This entry is all over the place, but I guess my questions would be what gets you to read something? What could someone say to get you to read something? Who does a person need to be to influence your reading? How do you weight venue vs. author vs. content of a review?
The Review Review always puts out good stuff, but this article about choosing where to submit is especially awesome, since it’s one of the most common dilemmas. I hate people who just say “read issues until you find something that resonates” as there’s just too much stuff out there to do that.
Finally, I’ve taken up a reader position at Noble Gas Quarterly, a new online lit mag. Check it out here.
I’m knee deep in an essay which asks the question, “Can book reviews learn something from video game reviews?” Part of writing this essay involves thinking about the book review industry as a whole, and my little portion of that industry. Should I be writing book reviews for free? Is it worth the time investment to get the exposure and add a line to my publications? It definitely seems like it, but what are the ethical implications of doing this work for free? Are there thresholds which I shouldn’t cross in regards to which books I review (both in terms of who wrote the book and who is publishing it), which venues my reviews appear in, and how often I write reviews? (For the record, I just realized that out of my six published and three upcoming book reviews, only two books were written by women. That makes me feel terrible and part of one of many problems. I’ll be more conscious in the future.)
Oddly enough, the question about thresholds makes me think about another aspect of my life: my relationship with food. When people ask, I tell them I’m a vegetarian, even though that’s not exactly true, but it’s a simple label to use and there’s no real concise alternative. I try to be vegan when I’m preparing meals for myself and vegetarian when I go out or eat someone else’s cooking, but I’ll also eat meat if I know it was raised in a way that is ethical and environmentally friendly (which right now is limited to a few farms near Austin and the occasional farm-raised oysters or snails). I consider eating meat, regardless of the source, to be a better choice than throwing it away. Of course, what is ethical and environmentally friendly is largely subjective. It’s also difficult to know. Jonathan Safran Foer makes the argument in Eating Animals that even if you know the meat you’re eating was ethically raised, that it’s still unethical to eat it because you’re raising demand for a product that is produced in most cases in horrific ways. I’m not sure I agree entirely with that, just as I’m not sure I agree entirely with Michael Pollan’s conclusion to The Omnivore’s Dilemma that’s basically him arguing to be mindful of what you’re eating, but allowing himself a can of beef broth every now and then.
It’s tough. On one hand, I know that when I go out to eat and order something with cheese on it, an animal with a terrible life was involved in producing my food. On the other hand, a plant-based diet is not always the answer. If I eat some foods during the offseason, it might come from thousands of miles away. By eating that, I’m participating in environmental damage that might affect way more lives. Hard to say, hard to say. Even buying stuff in season can have harmful ethical connotations – see the documentary La Cosecha – but I have no real alternatives for that. We buy locally when possible and pragmatic, and I know that the habits I’ve set for myself make a difference, but there’s always a lingering guilt about what else I could be doing.
Recently, someone told me I shouldn’t call myself a vegetarian because I’m reinforcing the belief that some waiters apparently hold that a little meat is no big deal, even for vegetarians. Living in Austin, I haven’t ever really come across that attitude, and I’m not really sure what I should do differently. I still get upset if a plate has meat in it when it wasn’t advertised. I still write comments to restaurants when they offer no good vegetarian choices, and I vote with my dollars in a similar vein. Coming up with a different label is next to impossible, due to the whole relative nature of it all. I understand what they were saying though. Conflict, conflict. On one hand, I think it’s important to be aware of what decisions you’re making–it’s easy to not think of them as decisions at all. On the other hand, man it’s complicated sometimes.
Other recent development: I officially hold an MA in Rhetoric and Composition as of a couple of days ago.
Edit! Hey, I forgot the Outside content:
I’ve begun collecting recent short-form prose at /r/contemporaryshortform. I don’t plan on advertising it, so it’ll likely remain largely a personal repository, but I’d be happy to have other contributors.
I’m very sad I’m missing Garrison Keillor speaking at BookPeople tonight (he’s promoting The Keillor Reader), but am thankful I live somewhere with such an awesome bookstore. They have a really awesome blog with book reviews and literary discussion and you should check it out.
Finally, The Onion has the best homage to Marquez.