Category Archives: Reading

The Escape

Aftersight

This may sound strange, but when I get stressed out, I read books about the American Civil War: memoirs, journals, biographies, histories. For some reason, combat and camp life are equally interesting; reading about it always makes me feel better.

It’s an escape to some degree, yes, but what it comes down to is this: No matter how stressful or unhappy life can sometimes get, at least I know life is better for me than it was for those soldiers, who faced hardships far worse than I could possibly fathom: bad food, exhausting marches, seemingly endless tedium interrupted by sudden violence, the loss of dear friends with sometimes little or no warning, and the very real chance that a simple cough might turn into an illness from which they might not recover.  By comparison, even at the lowest ebb, my life looks pretty grand.

One of the more stressful times in my life occurred many years ago when my wife and I were searching for a house. At the time, the real estate market in Seattle was hot. Houses in our price range were going fast. That meant you had to be on call if a new house came on the market. Waiting even a day would likely mean it would be snatched up before you had a chance to see it. And if you toured a house you liked, it meant you had to make an offer immediately. There was no night’s sleep to mull over your decision. Frequently, with good houses that needed little or no work, there were multiple offers.

Reading novels kept me sane. I was at the time working my way through what would become my favorite book series of all time: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. Before then, I could never read two books by the same author back to back. Even if I loved one book, I needed a little variety before I moved on to the next one.

Not so with the Aubrey/Maturin series. I remember fondly finishing one book, closing the cover and setting it down, then immediately picking up and starting the next one with scarcely a pause. Luckily for me, there were plenty of books in the series.

After three months and forty-nine house showings, my wife and I purchased a home. By the end I remember being utterly grateful to Mr. O’Brian. He had given me a profound gift, offering me the means not just to escape reality but just enough distraction that life became bearable in a very stressful time.

I remember thinking that this, more than anything else, is what I wanted to do as I writer: to give someone the gift that Mr. O’Brian gave me. A place to go when life wasn’t comfortable. Characters to laugh and cry with, surrogate friends who I loved as if they were the most cherished kindred spirits.

Has a book ever done that for you? Where do you escape? Please let me know in the comments below.

Mastering Astral ProjectionBrian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body Experience (Llewellyn, 2004) and the Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, he is the webmaster of and occasional contributor to Author Magazine. When he’s not working as a programmer analyst or exploring alternate dimensions out of body, he can be found writing novels. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara.

Site: http://www.brianmercerbooks.com/

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Twitter: @BriMercer

 

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Take Three Titles and Call Me in the Morning

Because You Have To           Feeling lost and lonely? Need to laugh? Get hold of some Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, or Dave Barry. (Or Kingsley Amis, whose Lucky Jim surely remains one of the funniest novels  ever written.) Crave soothing? Read some E. B. White, or a book that tracks the painting of a portrait. (Man With a Blue Scarf, Martin Gayford.) Need a bracing draught of coziness-with-pitiless-psychological-acuity? Curl up with a pile of Jane Austen or Henry James—or for literary smack-pow insight, the essays of James Wood. Want the equivalent of a shot of absinthe? Wild Sargasso Sea. Seek American characters who’ll intrigue and compel, yet feel familiar? Grab some Elizabeth Strout, starting with Olive Kitteridge. Jonesing for a candy assortment, where you can skip around and pounce on all the dark truffles? Best American Short Stories. And please don’t forget the immeasurable power of childhood or young adult favorites for any malady— including that of the aimless need to reconnect with life, history, adventure: The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Out of Africa; The Great Gatsby; Swiss Family Robinson, Charlotte’s Web.

            (This list, of course, scrolls infinitely on. My own pulse quickens with literary lust, just thinking about certain titles I long to revisit for no other reason than that I love them foolishly.)

            My dearest friend and I fantasize about creating a newspaper column premised upon exactly this transaction: books as medicine; indeed, as some of the best, most effective medicine ever. The suffering citizen would write to us, describing her or his symptoms. And we wise people-of-the-book would advise that person, in a column functioning like a friendly forum—other citizens could scan it for helpful advice. (My friend teaches now, but she sold books professionally for some time, and still practices this prescriptive therapy.)

Artists and writers, naturally, are not only not exempt from the folds of the ailing: often we may be found slumped at their front lines, wearied and wounded from the good fight, pining for inspiration, for courage, for galvanizing vision and energy. Look no further, fellow pilgrim, than your local library’s or bookstore’s shelves—then follow your heart’s divining rod for the exactly the right antidote. What’s most splendid about this whole exchange is the vastness of the range of brilliant remedies. In fact I’m about to walk right now to my own local library, where three wonderful titles await me.

Nothing feels better.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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A Small, Good Windfall

Because You Have ToThree or four times a year I’ve wished I could unscrew my head, leave it at the dental office for an hour, go do the things I like to do and return to collect my head, unfazed and undiscomfited.

 

Alas. I trudged in last week, miserable, for my routine cleaning.

 

The hygienist this time, a young Mexican-American woman, was carefully pleasant as they always are, and again, as they all do—why, why do they do this?—began chatting away at me. Of course my only available responses were a series of sounds, dramatically inflected: ‘aaah-haaggh,’ ‘aggghh,’ and ‘ooghh.’

 

Somehow she’d caught wind of the fact that I wrote, and began to tell me, as she worked, that she’d just discovered reading.

 

Whaghh?

 

I’d heard correctly. This woman may have been in her late twenties. Her life until only recently had mainly consisted of the scramble to get through school, obtain her professional credentials, and land a decent job. (This is my language describing her process, not hers, which was shyer and more polite.) There hadn’t been time—nor any cultural reinforcement—for reading.

 

By reading I mean reading just to read: from wide-ranging curiosity, for no larger purpose than to enter and dwell in the world of the book.

 

It started for her when, one day, a friend recommended a silly, popular potboiler. My hygienist found, almost instantly, that she wanted more, and better. Potboilers led to more serious fare. Sometimes she took herself to movies after she’d read the novels on which they were based, to compare them. No one was guiding or instructing her.

 

I can honestly tell you that her joy, in having discovered this amazing, vast world, expressed itself like Helen Keller’s, at the moment when she’d at last divined the meaning of “water” spelled into her hand by Anne Sullivan.

 

My own misery evaporated. I scribbled (once freed) a list of books for her to investigate, classics that would transcend fashion and blow her mind. Out of Africa. The Great Gatsby. And because she’d read a Norwegian book that intrigued her, Out Stealing Horses. There were dozens more.

 

I walked out of that office with not only clean teeth but an excited heart, fired up by her wonder. Simply by pointing out for her certain beloved stepping stones into it, I found the same brilliant, multicolored Oz opening up all over again for me.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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Hazzard and Greene on Capri

Because You Have ToIsn’t it odd how certain individuals appoint themselves explainers of another country’s culture to their own, native nation? They’ll go live in the Other Place, and then shoot back bulletins to their benighted countrymen and –women.

I think of Julian Barnes explaining France to England. Tim Parks explaining Italy to England (and by default, America). Bill Bryson explaining England to America. And there’s Rick Steves, of course, explaining Everywhere to America, in his cheerful, plainspoken Steves-ology.

Odder still is the fact that (in my view) many extremely gifted individuals cannot quite truly deliver the intangible essence of a place.

From my experience, you’ve just got to be there. In the place, I mean. Seeing, smelling, feeling, tasting, hearing. Not always, but often. Or so it strikes me.

You can read Parks complain about the new train station built at Naples, which on street level appears capacious and sleek and seemingly efficient—but which hides the below-ground wreckage of a falling-apart, ghoulish tram service to outlying towns, which is what all the regular Neopolitans (local people who are dirt poor) routinely use.

But you cannot really feel and understand the shock of this disparity until you’re standing in the shiny new above-ground station thinking, ‘Hey, Naples doesn’t seem so bad’—and then taking the escalator down to what looks and feels like hell.

One lovely and memorable exception to my above theory is the magnificent author Shirley Hazzard, all of whose work (novels, story collections, essays) brilliantly delivers a sense of place. In particular, her Greene on Capri is a masterful inside-look at a time and locale when writers could wander, dream and work with little difficulty in exquisite retreats like Sorrento, Positano, and the Isle of Capri—where Graham Greene lived for long periods and where Hazzard and her late husband, the Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller, spent significant portions of their lives together.

They all met up when Hazzard overheard Greene quoting a Robert Browning poem to a friend at a café table; Greene could not, as he reached its closing, recall the final line. Hazzard, who’s memorized swaths of poetry in her lifetime, gently told him the line—“or so very little longer” —as she exited the café. And the complicated, troubled friendship began. (Greene was an embattled soul.)

Greene on Capri, like all Hazzard’s work, is measured and wise. Unlike many other such accounts, it takes you there.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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The Postmodern Predicament

Because You Have ToI just finished a stunning first novel by Berlin-based American author (and war vet) Greg Baxter, called The Apartment. There is so much that is right about this book, I’d quickly run out of space discussing it here. Wary, wise, and in language so clean it creates a kind of floating surreality, the novel embodies an accurate response to the random absurdity of human history and contemporary life on earth; a response to what the novel terms, somewhere in its own pages, “the immortality of violence.”

 

The moment I read that phrase, I knew it to be true. Absolutely, irreducibly, immutably true.

 

Now: back up with me to the moment I finished the stories and novels of the brilliantly gifted Simon Van Booy. Van Booy’s works posit a world of wounded souls who nonetheless can, and regularly do, reach out with unutterable courage past their own pain to connect with and help one another in meaningful, abiding ways. There is no speck of sentiment about any of Van Booy’s investigations: there is an abundance of tenderness. Tenderness prevails.

 

I knew Van Booy’s vision, too, was true. Yet it pretty much stands in direct opposition to the vision of Greg Baxter.

 

“What do you do about this?” I asked my husband, while we were hiking around the lake in our home city’s park. “When you read two visions, each of which strikes you in the center of your heart as unimpeachably true, though each deeply contradicts the other?”

 

“Welcome to postmodernism,” said He Who Has Taught That Subject as part of his English Lit instruction for a big bunch of years now.

 

“Construct your color chart,” he added, for an analogy. “How much blue? How much green?”

 

Contradictory ideas, in our postmodern awareness, co-exist like colors on a palette. And how much of each we incorporate into our own view of the big picture (speaking very simply), is up to us.

 

It can change every minute. It can be black with simultaneity.

 

It’s not restful, either. Scott Fitzgerald said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

 

And yet surely this is always the writer’s task: to convey that simultaneity. If we do it right, readers recognize themselves, and each other, gratefully.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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Romantic Elements

The NSA FilesI remember reading Edgar Rice Buroughs’ John Carter of Mars series when I was a little kid. It was labeled science fiction because of the idea behind the premise of the stories. But they were really romance novels as much as anything else. I suppose some of them could have been called military sci-fi, too, since there is a lot of fighting in them.

 

I know that genre was created to help readers find what they are interested in, but just as often genre leads people away from the most interesting and unique approaches to a subject. There are times that genre can lead readers into a pit of stories that are all similar as well. I’ve read that many readers don’t want to be too surprised. They want to feel as though they know what to expect. That you, as a writer, can only throw in very little surprise—within the limitations of the genre—or readers will review your book badly.

 

Amazon goes to great lengths to make sure readers get the same thing over and over again. With the “People who bought ­­________, also bought ______” statements. They continually watch authors and publishers closely so that we don’t “misrepresent” our titles. But the truth is that readers are bound to find what they enjoy in almost any book. The romance that takes place on Jupiter after a crash landing; the mystery that happens while a cop and social worker are falling in love; the thriller that takes place in the military.

 

I often think of authors like Kurt Vonnegut, who didn’t want his books to be labeled science fiction, and was therefore on the shelf with other mainstream novels. Many of his books were actually fantasy. And then there’s Alice Hoffman, also a mainstream novelist who has elements of fantasy in her books that are essential to the plot. There are many other writers, like Sharon Shinn who writes beautifully about relationships, love, politics, and much more, but her books are labeled Fantasy.

 

I wish we could easily categorize our novels by how many pages are devoted to certain types of genres. Although this, too, would be extremely difficult, it might help. I think then we’d find the romance novel, with elements of fantasy; the thriller, with elements of politics; the science fiction, with elements of mystery; and on and on.

 

I want people to find new books to read, new authors to fall in love with, and new genres that take them to a place they’ve never been before. I know this is what “cross-genre” novels are supposed to be doing, but many I’ve read can’t do the term justice. Often the author is skilled at one genre and very weak in the other. The novels are being written to “capture two audiences” rather than because they are good books with great ideas and characters.

 

One last thought about this: whether you’ve read the classic sci-fi novels of H.G. Wells, or the adventures novels of Jonathan Swift, most novels have elements of several different genres in them. Maybe we should just label everything the same and let readers discover new books on their own—just a thought.

Ten Months In WonderlandTerry Persun writes in many genres, including historical fiction, mainstream, literary, and science fiction/fantasy. He is a Pushcart nominee. His latest poetry collection is “And Now This”. His novels, “Wolf’s Rite” and “Cathedral of Dreams” were ForeWord magazine Book of the Year finalists in the science fiction category, and his novel “Sweet Song” won a Silver IPPY Award. His latest science fiction space opera is, “Hear No Evil”, his latest fantasy is “Doublesight”, his latest mainstream/literary novel is “Ten Months in Wonderland”.

Site: http://www.TerryPersun.wix.com/terrypersun

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Feeling Invisible

The NSA FilesI’ve been trying to figure out why I’m in love with writing. I mean, you have to be in love with something in order to stay with it for over thirty years, among rejection after rejection, publication in small magazines with few readers, promises of publication that never come about, and even regular publication where reviews can be harsh, misinformed, or just plain stupid.

 

Having said all that, there are still the publication of poems and stories in great little magazines that I can be proud of; the good reviews, of which there are many; and the satisfaction of knowing that I reached someone out there in the lost populous.

 

But the one thing I seldom look at is my affinity toward being alone, even in a crowd. As much as I teach writing, lecture on marketing, and work with people and horses, I love to be alone in a room with nothing but my characters, a half-written poem, or new ideas to work on. I like the feeling of being invisible in a crowded room, so that I can watch how others act and listen to their conversations. I enjoy walking in the woods and when I pass someone they don’t say anything or look at me because they just can’t see me.

 

At moments when I feel invisible, I sense that I’m more in tune with myself and the world around me, the natural world. I sense that I fit in. I like being a part of the whole, and not some specific piece that demands attention. And this, I believe, is how I think about my writing.

 

I want someone to read one of my novels, stories, or poems and feel as though it belongs to them. I want to disappear inside the work itself, never to be noticed. I want others to forget my background, my theories, my beliefs, and soak up my words until they are part of the reader, a part they can’t let go of, or ignore, any longer.

 

When I’m at my most creative, writing that piece that has me totally engulfed in the work, I feel invisible to the rest of the world. I do believe that we’re all part of the whole, but I also separate from that idea way too often. When I’m ready to die at the end of my life, it would be so cool if I just faded away. One minute I’m there and the next I’m gone. Perhaps into one of my own stories. Ten Months In Wonderland

Terry Persun writes in many genres, including historical fiction, mainstream, literary, and science fiction/fantasy. He is a Pushcart nominee. His latest poetry collection is “And Now This”. His novels, “Wolf’s Rite” and “Cathedral of Dreams” were ForeWord magazine Book of the Year finalists in the science fiction category, and his novel “Sweet Song” won a Silver IPPY Award. His latest science fiction space opera is, “Hear No Evil”, his latest fantasy is “Doublesight”, his latest mainstream/literary novel is “Ten Months in Wonderland”.

Site: http://www.TerryPersun.wix.com/terrypersun

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TerryPersun?ref=tn_tnmn

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tpersun

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