Wednesday, June 21, 2017

MFA faculty: Summer Reading


Summertime, and the reading is easy....or challenging, thrilling, shake-you-up-and-set-you-down someplace new. In today's blog, MFA faculty talk about what they're reading this summer—everything from classic nonfiction works to memoirs to groundbreaking novels by new writers. Whether you're traveling to a distant country or down the block to your local, air-conditioned library, you'll find the world opening up in the pages of these books.

Mel Allen - Creative Nonfiction Form and Theory I and II
I am in the midst of writing a major feature for Yankee on the Making of the Vietnam War. It’s about Ken Burns’ new 18-hour epic to be aired this September. I have read all Vietnam all the time the past month. In particular Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and Going after Cacciato— as well as personal memoirs from unknown soldiers and even one by a mother who lost her son.

Leanna James Blackwell, MFA Director - Mentorship Lab, Field Seminar in Ireland
I just completed Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, a richly imagined, stunning meditation on grief, told in the voices of souls who live in the cemetery where Lincoln’s young son, Willie, was buried. In a completely different vein, I’m midway through Norse Mythology, a retelling of Norse legends by Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods. I often turn to mythology and folklore for inspiration –my most recent play, Grimm Women, is a feminist retelling of three classic fairy tales and I’m currently working on an essay collection inspired by Greek myths.

Next on my list are two new memoirs I can’t wait to read: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, about growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation by the brilliant poet, novelist, and short-story writer Sherman Alexie; and Roxane Gay’s newest book, Hunger, which explores the dangerous territory of weight, female bodies, and the way the body responds to trauma.  Last on my list is a book I re-read every summer, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Woolf’s work has served as a lighthouse to me during my entire writing career, and each time I revisit her books I discover something fresh, startling, and unexpected.

Mieke Bomann - Getting Inside Lives: Writing the Personal Profile
I have three books open now. Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate can Transform our Lives, by Thupten Jinpa. The author is the longtime English translator for the Dalai Lama, and a former Buddhist monk himself. Clearly written, moving and practical, Jinpa outlines how compassion is the "best-kept secret of happiness." Re-reading The Endurance, by Caroline Alexander, a terrific take on Shackleton's legendary Antarctic expedition. The writing is great, the photos fantastic, and the journey unmatched in its magnitude of spirit, courage, and mind-boggling fortitude. Plus, the frozen setting brings coolness to a hot day! Finally, The News: A User's Manual, by Alain de Botton. As a news junkie—and who isn't, in these days of presidential disaster-a-minute bulletins?—I'm curious to see what this British "pop philosopher" has to say about our media habits, and to gain further insights into the extraordinary impact the 24/7 news cycle has on our hearts and minds.

Adam Braver - Thesis I and II

Currently, three books in the nightstand rotation, two of which are Norwegian novels: The Unseen by Roy Jacobson (shortlisted for Man Booker Award, which was a draw), and another called The Beatles by Lars Saabye Christensen (a book that came highly recommended by a Norwegian friend). I very much like to read contemporary literature from other countries because I find them to be less constrained, in that they trust the intellect of the reader, and can take chances with form, convention, and the exploration of ideas and consciousness. The third book is a nonfiction essay collection: Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill. I greatly admire her fiction and thinking, and look forward to seeing it in the personal essay form.  


Susie Chang - Eat, Drink, Get Paid
I'm not reading much fiction these days but picked up The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho on my husband's recommendation, mostly for pleasure. It turned out to be not only a good read but also very relevant to the kind of research on spiritual journeys I'm doing right now.  I’m also reading Tarot and the Magus by Paul Hughes Barlow, just one of the two or three dozen Tarot books I'm constantly dipping in and out of right now in the course of writing a book, Tarot Correspondences, for Llewellyn Publications.  In this case I'm specifically looking for some advanced techniques to incorporate both into my divination practice and into my own book.

Anthony D'Aries - Mentorship Lab, Professional Track in Teaching
I'm reading a memoir by Leah Carroll called Down City: Daughter's Story of Love, Memory, and Murder. Set in Rhode Island, it's about the writer's mother, a photographer who was murdered by two drug dealers with Mafia connections when Leah was four years old. The book is not only about that traumatic event but also the mystery of her parents' lives, told through interviews, photos, and police records. It's a wonderful memoir. 

Aine Greaney - Health and Wellness Writing, Mentorship Lab
I just picked up a wonderful memoir, Once We Were Sisters, by Sheila Kohler. It's by a South-African-born author who, following the death of her 39-year-old sister, flies back to her native country to grieve and come to terms with their shared lives and strange childhood. I chose this because the writing is so beautiful, I love transatlantic books and am always fascinated by family relationships and how family history overlaps with a country's history.

Shahnaz Habib - Creative Nonfiction Form and Theory I and II
This month, I have been reading the Qur'an with my daughter. We are in the middle of Ramadan, a sacred month for Muslims. It's the month in which the Qur'an was first revealed to the Prophet. As a reader and writer, I love remembering that the first revealed word of the Qur'an was "Read!" So every day, Sophy and I read a few Qur'an verses in Arabic, then we read their English translation. I love sitting on the prayer mat with my daughter on my lap, reading in two languages. Reading with a six-year-old means stopping to wonder about words, defining concepts I have taken for granted, parsing the difference between literal and metaphoric. The questions she asks are compelling me to think through my own understanding of belief, God's powers, human purpose.

Ramadan has been particularly hard this year in North America in these long summer days. I have been humbled and challenged by the daily 16-hour fasting regimen. For inspiration, I have been reading about fasting. I just finished the gorgeous, lyrical Fasting for Ramadan by Kazim Ali, in which he writes about fasting and writing and doing yoga. I have also been dipping into Ramadan: Motivating Believers to Action, an anthology that collects theological and philosophical writings on Ramadan from the 12th century to our own times.

But there comes a time of the day when my hunger is too distracting for lofty reading. So I have also been cutting the fat with some detective fiction. Right now I am working my way through Susan Hill's Inspector Serailler mysteries. I will admit that I linger a bit too much over the descriptions of police officers discussing the latest murder over pie and peas in a pub. Pie and peas. Mmmm.

I am also prepping for a Study Abroad program I will be leading in India later this summer, so I am rereading some Indian writers I want my students to read. I was awed by Ghachar Ghochar, a novel in translation, in which the author Vivek Shanbagh captures a changing city by focusing on the domestic tensions within one family. I will soon turn to R. K. Narayan who created a fictional small town, Malgudi, the likes of which are fast disappearing in India, and peopled them with characters, each of whose lives he explored through individual books in the Malgudi series.

Karol Jackowski - Women’s Spiritual Writing, Nature Writing
Years ago I started reserving summer as a time to re-read books that changed my life.  I scan my bookshelves waiting for a book to pick me. This summer Jung's Active Imagination was my first pick.  How did it change my life?  In 2001 I finished writing—with a six week deadline—a heart-wrenching book called The Silence We Keep, a nun's view of the pedophile priest scandal.  Feeling like I'd never write another word, I picked up Active Imagination in which Jung speaks in depth about how to keep the writing soul alive. He writes about what to do when you finish writing a book before beginning another one. "Do the opposite of what your craft is,” he said, and used the example of a writer beginning to paint.  Doing the opposite of our craft awakens creative visions in the soul untouched by the mindfulness of writing.  Or as Gertrude Stein reveals..."It takes a heap of doing nothing to write a good book." The mindlessness and playfulness of painting has now become the soulmate to writing life. Thank you, Carl Jung.

Lisa Romeo - Thesis I and II
For part of my spring and summer reading, I decided to catch up with books by some fellow graduates of the MFA program I attended. It's a wildly divergent group of books. I'm currently reading two: The Butcher's Daughter by Florence Grende, a memoir of growing up the child of Holocaust survivors; and A Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol, an unusual novel about plants, eco-terrorism, family, and…(well, I'll find out). And next up are: Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks, in which she interviews writers who tackled difficult memoirs; The Language of Men by fellow MFA instructor Anthony D'Aries, a father-son story of love, travel, discovery; and In the Context of Love by Linda K. Sienkiewicz, a novel of family secrets and the always challenging path of love.

Suzanne Strempek Shea - Writer-in-Residence, Field Seminar in Ireland
I’m reading Ma Speaks Up: And a First-Generation Daughter Talks Back, by Marianne Leone. Leone’s first book, Jesse: A Mother’s Story, is a heart-grabbing tribute to the life of her late son, and the story of how she and husband Chris Cooper became activists for others who, like their Jesse did, struggle with physical and/or mental challenges. In this new book, Leone brings us to the story (both the real one and the fable she delivered over the years) of her mother’s immigration from Italy, and to Marianne’s own journey across the sometimes swirling seas of being that larger-than-life woman’s daughter. Often poignant, and just as often hilarious, the writing shines with spirit and love. Second on the list is the brilliant Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America, 1966-1971, by Leigh Montville. I read anything by this perennially best-selling writer, who spoke on interviewing at one of our earlier Writers’ Days. Montville’s prose, research, approach, and his basic ideas (as this look at a very tumultuous time in the life of Ali and this country illustrates) fascinate and inform.

I’m also reading Puppy Bible: The Ultimate Week-by-Week Guide to Raising Your Puppy, by Claire Arrowsmith and Alison Smith. It’s been ten years since I’ve raised a puppy, and this is a solid paw to hold as my husband and I begin anew. I’m happy about the guidance and checklists that start with the decision to adopt a pup, and then go through preparing the home and family and bringing the little one home. The week-by-week setup that brings us to six months has been most helpful. The sections on dog psychology, behavior issues, training and more also have been read more than a few times. I don’t agree with everything (please spay/neuter your critters, don’t waste time pondering) but find this a generally solid resource.

Tommy Shea - Field Seminar in Ireland

Summer reading! What it Used to be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver by Maryann Burk Carver. I’m a reporter, always looking for the other side of the story. I first read Raymond Carver’s short stories in Esquire in the early ‘80s. Then I started buying his books, Cathedral the first. The sentences and paragraphs were short, terse. What wasn’t being said hung there like cigarette smoke, silent, ever present. The characters within seemed straight out of the Bruce Springsteen albums, “Darkness on the Edge of Town’’ and “Nebraska.” Hardscrabble, paycheck-to-paycheck lives. The baby is on the way. The rent is overdue. The phone rings and no one picks it up. The drink is always being poured and drunk too fast. The cup hits the table, signaling “I’m done, hit me with another.” The author always said he drew his stories from his life.

Raymond Carver, who had toiled as a soda jerk, janitor, and farm worker, the guy who graduated Chico State College with a B-minus average, became a literary star. He was reviewed as an “American Chekov,’’ the “most important American short story writer of the second half of the 20th century.’’ He divorced his first wife, married a famous poet, quit drinking, had a lung removed, kept writing. He was dead at 50. Cancer.

Carver’s first wife, Maryann, was a footnote in too many obituaries. She had met him when she was 14, working as a waitress at the Spudnut restaurant in Union Gap, Washington. When they married in 1957, she had just graduated high school, two months short of her 17th birthday and pregnant. Carver was 19. Before Maryann was 18, she was pregnant again. She quit school to support her husband’s writing habit and her daughter and son, working as an encyclopedia saleswoman, a waitress, restaurant hostess, before finishing her schooling and teaching English. Maryann had her book published in 2006. I’m only reading it now. So far it is a love story I don’t think will end. But I know different. I think.

Kate Whouley - Mentorship Lab, Health and Wellness Writing, Professional Track in Publishing
Right now, I am reading Woe is I by Patricia O'Connell, as I am working to develop a foundational refresher course for incoming students. For pleasure, I’m reading The Rebels of Ireland by Edward Rutherfurd. I read his novel Paris earlier this spring, and fell in love with his contemporary approach to historical fiction. (And after you finish one of his sweeping epics, you have a new doorstop!)

And, of course, my summer reading always includes the good writing in The New Yorker, Yankee Magazine, and, yes, Vogue.  
 

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