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1 Feb 2010

January reading review – As I mentioned in my previous entry, we’ve been doing a lot of reading since we arrived here in Cambridge. Most of HJ’s reading has been for classes she is auditing here, but I’ve been reading a variety of things. I will be doing research reading in the near future, but for now I’ve been reading things that have piqued my curiosity. Since I expect to continue reading throughout the year, I thought that I would keep a monthly reading journal of sorts, quickly reviewing the books that I read. Today is January’s reading journal.

“It’s been nice to sit down with real books and flip through the pages again.”

I didn’t actually do all that much reading this month, as most of it was spent with my parents or at the MLA conference. The conference was an opportunity for me to pick up a bunch of books, though, and the first two books that I read this month were MLA finds.

The Mindful Writer, Dinty W. Moore (2016)

I have something to confess: I am a sucker for “how to write” books. Despite the fact that I haven’t written any fiction worthy of the name in years, I still like to read books about writing fiction. So this tiny little book (it is the size of a C6 envelope) caught my eye when I was browsing the book stalls at the convention. My first thought was, “Wait... Dinty Moore? Don’t they make stew?” But my second thought was, “That looks like an interesting book.”

In a nutshell, the author (who is director of creative writing at Ohio University and, as far as I can tell, does not sell stew) draws on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness and applies it to writing. This is no accident; the author is a Buddhist himself (one of his publications is The Accidental Buddhist), and the introduction includes a section entitled “The Four Noble Truths of the Writing Life.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that this is a Buddhist book. Moore takes his inspiration from Buddhist concepts and ideas, but his advice will hold true for writers of all faiths (or none).

The book consists mainly of 59 quotes, mostly from other writers, that Moore expands upon, offering his insight and wisdom. (I originally thought that the number of quotes had been chosen specifically because it was half of 108... but of course half of 108 is 54, not 59.) I am tempted to pick a few of these quotes and talk about how they struck or impressed me, but the truth is that each quote said something to me. And each quote made me feel something. That something was more often than not guilt. This might be a strange emotional response to have to a book, but this is often the response I have to books on the craft of writing, because they remind me that I am not, in fact, writing. (For clarification, when I say “writing” here I mean writing fiction.)

So why do I read writing books? Because making me feel guilty is not the only thing they do—they also inspire me and give me hope, hope that I will one day write something worthwhile myself. Of course, now I am feeling guilty again, because in the time that has elapsed since I finished reading The Mindful Writer, I have spent exactly zero minutes writing. And I know that, when it comes to getting things done, things that we tell ourselves we will do “one day” will in fact never get done. You either do something today or you don’t.

(I started writing this entry yesterday, and after I wrote the above paragraph I decided that I was tired of just feeling guilty. So today I wrote something. It wasn’t a lot, and it probably wasn’t very good, but it was something. Not everything you write is going to be gold, but if you don’t write anything at all, you’re never even going to get dross.)

This is becoming less about the book and more about me, but I will say that living in the present is an important idea in Buddhism, in particular in the Zen tradition, so the above musings are not completely unrelated. At any rate, The Mindful Writer did what I want a good writing book to do: It made me feel. Unlike a lot of writing books, it is less about the technical aspects of the craft (although there are important pieces of advice that could be considered technical) and more about what it means to call oneself a writer—what it means in terms of how you live your life, how you interact with the world, and how you interact with yourself. It’s a quick read, but it lends itself to repeat visits. I could even see using it as a sort of writer’s “devotional,” reading one quote/elaboration per day and meditating on it. I’m glad it is on my shelf, but I do not believe it will gather dust there.

The Road Not Taken, David Orr (2015)

The subtitle of this book is: “Finding America in the poem everyone loves and almost everyone gets wrong.” I think that tells you exactly what you should expect when you start reading. I loved Robert Frost when I was in high school, and when I saw this book at MLA I could not resist it.

The title of the book is, of course, the title of Frost’s most famous poem. This title is often quoted or misremembered as “The Road Less Taken,” which says a lot about how people generally interpret the work. According to Orr, though, this common interpretation—that the poem is a celebration of individuality and the heroic choice to follow a difficult path—is wrong, or at least not at all what Frost intended. In a nutshell—and to borrow the author’s own words from the introduction—the poem is “a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.”

If that has left you scratching your head, you are not alone. I had, of course, heard before that the common interpretation of the poem was not what it actually meant, but if pressed for the details I would have come up short. At any rate, I’ve never been exposed to such a close and careful reading of this poem before. This is coupled with a brief history of Frost as a poet that sheds light on why he wrote the poem that he did. Orr then moves on to “find America” (or American culture) in this poem, and he even delves into the question of free will and whether choice is nothing more than an illusion.

I found this book absolutely fascinating and had a hard time putting it down. I imagine that if I had read it at a younger age, before I had been exposed to a lot of the philosophy that the book gets into, it might have blown my mind. My mind remains intact (or as intact as it was before I started reading), but the book still offered a lot of tasty food for thought.

Boston Noir, various authors (2009)

This book I picked up after we arrived here in Cambridge, when we were browsing the bookshelves at the Coop. HJ had to pick up some books for a few classes that she is auditing, and as we were heading out through the bookshop I spied this sitting on a table. I can’t say that I’ve ever been a particularly avid fan of noir, but hey, Boston! So I bought a copy.

The introduction to the book begins with a discussion of what noir fiction actually is, which I thought was good, because if you had asked me to define noir I would have just looked at you befuddled. I know that “noir” is French for “black,” which tells us something about the tone, but beyond that all I have are vague images of hard-boiled detectives. Dennis Lehane comes to the rescue with a definition:

No matter what you may hear to the contrary, noir is not a genre defined by fedoras, silver streams of cigarette smoke, vampy femme fatales, huge whitewall tires, mournful jazz playing in the gloomy background, and lots and lots of shadows. Nor is it simply skuzzy people doing skuzzy things to other skuzzy people, a kind of trailer park opera. One could argue that what it is, however, is working-class tragedy. ... In Shakespeare, tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir, they fall from curbs. Tragic heroes die in a blaze of their own ill-advised conflation. Noir heroes die clutching fences or crumpled in trunks....

This is all very well and good (although I have to admit I am a little confused by the use of “conflation” here). However, of the eleven stories in the collection, less than half qualify as tragedies, and only two feature heroes who end up dead. Which is not to say that I necessarily did not enjoy those stories that were not tragedies, just that I am not sure I know any better what noir is now than I did before I read the collection. What really matters, though, is the stories themselves.

As with all collections, different people will respond differently to different stories and authors. There were a couple of stories that didn’t really seem like “stories” to me, but more like vignettes; when I got to the end of them, I wasn’t really sure what to think, because nothing had actually “happened.” There were other stories that featured more classically noir plots and characters (or what I think of as noir, even if I can’t define it), and in general I tended to enjoy these more. One of these stories, set in Boston Harbor, felt generically noir, but it was well told and ended up being one of my favorites. Another story featuring a private detective was set in Cambridge, and I enjoyed that one both for the story itself and because I recognized some of the place references.

There were some surprises as well. For example, I was not expecting a noir story set in the middle of the 18th century, but I got one, and I enjoyed it. Another story dealing with an old priest accused of pedophilia was quite disturbing, and I cannot say that I enjoyed it, but it was very powerful and I thought it was very good. And then there was the story of the New York transplant who ends up in Boston and can’t quite adjust. I couldn’t help but like that one.

All in all, I enjoyed the collection. I think “noir” was just a thematic thing to bring all the stories together, and that theme is thus naturally going to be stronger in some stories than others, but I didn’t buy the collection for the noir in the first place, I bought it for the Boston. In that regard, it did not disappoint.

And that’s what I read during the month of January, or at least the last bit of the month. It’s been nice to sit down with real books and flip through the pages again, and I look forward to continuing my reading this month.

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