July 6, 2022 § 5 Comments
By E.A. Farro
Today, the stars wouldn’t get between Romeo and Juliet. The lovers could call one another or share locations and avoid tragic misunderstandings. Cell phones and satellites are just two of the technological achievements that require resource extraction and consumption, changing the chemical composition of our air and water. The shipwrecks that begin The Tempest and Twelfth Night wouldn’t be acts of god today. The storms would be extreme weather made more likely by climate change.
While literature has always explored advances in technology and their effect on human health and the environment, we’ve reached an inflection point. The rate of change in how we engage with technology and the associated impacts on our planet are unprecedented. The atmosphere in which characters live and plots unfold have changed as irrevocably as the one in which we live.
Geologic time periods are named to tell a story, starting with the Hadean (the Netherworlds), before life existed. Our current eon, the Phanerozoic (visible life) began 541 million years ago when animals evolved shells that left behind fossils. The proposed name for our current epoch is the Anthropocene—anthropo from the Greek for human—because humans have become the driving force on Earth. There is disagreement about the start of the Anthropocene. Estimates range from the beginning of agriculture, more than ten thousand years ago, to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945. Books like Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction digest how industrialization reshaped not only our own destiny but also that of the more than eight million other species on Earth.
Hurricanes, wildfires, and pandemics are no longer acts of divine retribution. What once formed boundary conditions are malleable. We are the gods. Or, at least, we’ve taken over key elements of their role without approaching omniscience. With all our power, we don’t know if reaching outer space or creating artificial intelligence is good or bad. We increase the quality of our life by removing mountain tops, like a snake eating its own tail. We have never been so powerful or so afraid of our own power. In Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem this self-hatred is enough to fuel a movement to help aliens take over Earth.
Facing existential crisis, we document the fragility and power of nature, like in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonder, Elizabeth Rush’s Rising, Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, and literary journals like Orion. We meditate on our relationship to place, like in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Annie Dillard’s Tinker at Pilgrim Creek, and literary journals like The Common and Ecotone. This writing soothes us with beauty, alarms us with destruction, and demands that we pay attention. It reminds us that we, too, are animal.
The awareness of climate change, ocean acidification, space trash, and sea-level rise permeate stories far outside of the genre of science and nature writing. In Present Tense Machine by Gunnhild Oyehaug, the protagonists are separated by parallel worlds, and while climate change is not a plot point, the characters’ awareness of it reverberates as an additional anxiety throughout the book.
Imagining our future offers both warnings and hope. LeVar Burton says “By simply accepting the invitation to contemplate the ‘what if’ we unleash our superpower on the very nature of possibility itself, oftentimes resulting in the seemingly miraculous.” Anthony Doerr depicts living in a spaceship for multiple generations in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Octavia Butler shows the collapse of civilized society in Parable of the Sower. Benjamin Percy plays out a new energy source in The Ninth Metal. These books shove our faces in the consequences, intended or not, of human actions and choices.
Writing in the Anthropocene means facing unbearable tradeoffs. The fate of humans and our planet is an active question. Answering requires us to weigh our current food, flights, and fortunes against the lives of our descendants and the continued existence of other species. This reckoning carries accompanying grief and displacement. We need storytelling to integrate science, and what is at stake, into our personal narratives and government policies. Perhaps art can reach our hearts or, more importantly, our imaginations, where statistics and facts fail.
In Romeo and Juliet, the death of the young lovers shocks Verona out of the cycle of vengeance. It heals a broken system. Romeo and Juliet, today, would debate whether or not to bring children into a broken world. What future could their son and daughter inhabit? And would increasing the population only lead to more environmental destruction?
Science cannot answer all of the questions that confront us. Is a lake a spiritual entity worth saving? An ocean? Do we even know what spiritual means anymore? Is bravery in shades of gray or is it black and white?
Where science can go no further, art continues on, alone, into the dark of unknowing.
E.A. Farro is a climate scientist who spent several years working on environmental policy in politics. Her publications have appeared in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among others. She is a recipient of a Minnesota State Art Board grant, a Nan Snow Emerging Writers Award, a residency at Everwood Farmstead, among others. She teaches at the Loft Literary Center.
July 4, 2022 § 3 Comments
By Ali Solomon
We are pleased to share a literary-themed comic chronicling the delicate and often frustrating challenge of discussing books without ruining the reading experience for others.
Click the link below to view the entire comic in PDF form:
Ali Solomon is a writer/cartoonist from Queens, NY who contributes regularly to the New Yorker. Her book, I Am ‘Why Do I Need Venmo’ Years Old, was published by Running Press (Hachette) this past summer, and her collection of essays and cartoons, I Love(ish) New York City, is forthcoming this fall from Chronicle.
November 29, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Adam Patric Miller
Thursday, February 1, 2018
Wow. I stopped writing. Funny how that goes. I have something to work with in all the entries up to today, but I’m too tired and irritated to think about going in to shape it up. That will be the summer. Literary time moves so slow you might be dead before things pick up. Met Toby Wyatt at Momus Café to discuss strategy to become the English Dept. Chair—a job I don’t want. But Brad is so bad, he’s causing damage to students. And with Molly Sauereisen as language arts coordinator, she’s trying to fuck up the core books we teach. Why do I care? Should I care? I’m busy collecting agent rejections. Here’s one: “I’ve reviewed your submission with Jonathan and I’m sorry to report that we just aren’t wholeheartedly connecting with your work, despite its many charms. So, we should step aside. We truly appreciate the look, though, and we wish you nothing but the best of luck.” Here’s what I think. That book has zero charms. Scary thought: the book I’ve written is not what I think I’ve written. It is a sugary confection. It is charming and fun. At some point the dementia set in but I kept writing, like now. There have been intimations. I’ll type an email, re-read it, and see typos—I mean extreme typos I used to never make. Or I’ll be talking to class about what is due on Friday—to remind them—and they’ll all tell me, “You said Monday!” Friday, Monday, Monday, Shmunday. I wish me best of luck. Today I’m teaching the end of Mrs. Dalloway. I’ve concocted a Party Quiz—if you don’t know the book, it ends with the snob Mrs. Dalloway throwing her party and the Prime Minister shows up, but, you know, so does Death. I think I tell my students Virginia Woolf thought she heard birds singing in Greek. The hallucination one character has seems too familiar to me. Grace says, “Don’t make everything about you.” And I say, “What else do I have?” I know what she means of course. But Septimus sees his friend blown up in WWI; Dad’s buddy died at Iwo Jima. None of those things happened to me. I remember a funeral for a student. The student’s mom stared at me after I looked at her son in the coffin. She wasn’t crying. Her eyes were filled with the black ink of rage.
Adam Patric Miller is the author of A Greater Monster (2014), a collection of essays selected by Phillip Lopate to win the Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize. He’s won a Pushcart Prize and a Notable Essay Selection in The Best American Essay Series. Miller’s work has appeared in River Styx, The Blue Earth Review, Agni Magazine, and The Florida Review. Miller writes and teaches in St. Louis, Missouri. Twitter: @patric_adam
November 22, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Ashley Espinoza
I grapple with my identity as a Puerto Rican. My mother is Puerto Rican, but she was born in America. When my grandfather was eight he moved to New York and when he turned eighteen he joined the United States Army and spent his years as a father moving his family all over America and various countries. Though my mom has been to Puerto Rico more times than I have, she has never lived there. My grandmother was born in Puerto Rico but was mostly raised in the United States, in New York and Chicago. I have the Puerto Rican blood, but my culture has been mostly lost.
So when I picked up the book Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz and read that it was a book about her life in Puerto Rico and Miami as well as Puerto Rico’s history with colonization I knew it was the book for me. Díaz is Puerto Rican, like me, my mother, and both of her parents. Though, unlike Díaz, I have only been to Puerto Rico twice in my life. Once when I was two-years-old and have no memory of it, but plenty of photos to prove I was there; a photo of my mother and I jumping into a lake, me at a payphone, and more photos of me visiting a family-owned grocery store. I visited again at twenty-two when my grandpa invited me to Puerto Rico over Christmas break. I had the chance to visit a family orchard, to eat oranges picked right from the tree. I took shots of pitorro, a moonshine rum, at each home I visited.
Jaquira Díaz grew up in Puerto Rico until she was eight years old, then she moved to Miami. She writes about Puerto Rico in details and memories like those of my mother’s, like hearing the coquis, small frogs, sing at night. Díaz gives a description of Puerto Rico that makes me feel at home, although Puerto Rico has never been my home.
The year after I got my bachelor’s degree I visited the island I heard about my whole life. I went to the famous-in-my-family ice cream shop in Poncè and ordered the most delicious peanut ice cream. I still dream of going back just to eat that ice cream one last time. My grandfather showed me downtown Poncè, and when we saw a church he told me that maybe someday I could get married there, or somewhere like it. I couldn’t say out loud that I didn’t plan on getting married. I could not break his heart right there in his hometown. He dreamed of my wedding day, I did not.
While I was visiting Puerto Rico we stopped at Wal-Mart and checking out a lady made a remark to me in Spanish. I smiled as you would to a stranger seemingly telling a joke. I had no idea what she said but at that moment I was proud, I was Puerto Rican. She couldn’t tell by looking at me that I was from Colorado and that I didn’t know Spanish. To her I was just like any other Puerto Rican on the island. I never felt more Puerto Rican in my life. Except for the fact that I had no idea what she said and I couldn’t respond back.
I often wonder what my family in Puerto Rico thinks of me. Not many of my family members spoke English and I don’t speak Spanish. My great-uncle didn’t speak to me most of the trip. He only talked to his brother, my grandfather, in Spanish. The day before I was to leave he started talking to me in English. I did not know he spoke English at all. I wonder if he thought of me as a spoiled American girl who knew nothing of her culture.
Throughout her memoir, Díaz gives her readers the past and the history of Puerto Rico. In 1937, citizens of Poncè, Puerto Rico wanted independence from the United States. Cops surrounded protestors and shot them in the streets. In Poncè, Puerto Rico in 1950, a date that resonates with me as both of my grandparents were born in Poncè in 1950, citizens were not allowed to speak out against the US government or fly their Puerto Rican Flags.
Towards the end of her memoir Díaz visited San Juan and stopped at the prison that was called La Princesa, but instead of a prison when she visits, it’s a tourist location. D́iaz writes about a moment when she is standing in a prison cell and someone asks her to take their photo, without thinking she asks for her photo to be taken as well. Then she writes “How strong our collective desire to erase our history, our pain. How easily we let ourselves forget.” Those words ring true in a thousand ways. I too have stood in that same tourist location. I have photos of me in those prison cells. I too fell into the trap of contributing to the erasure of history. Is this what my great uncle thinks of me? Some tourist coming into his home and forgetting Puerto Rico’s history?
My great aunt only spoke one English sentence right before I left Puerto Rico. She grabbed both of my hands and said, “Come back, and when you do you will know Spanish.”
“Yes.” I said.
“Promise?” She asked as she held my face in between her hands.
I think of that promise often. Sometimes I study Spanish really hard to keep that promise. Other times I forget. I have one problem; I have no one to talk to in Spanish to practice. My family prefers to speak in English and only a few Spanish words come out every now and then. Not enough for full conversations.
I want to keep that promise for my great-aunt and for myself. But most importantly for my daughter. I don’t want her to grow up with dark hair and big brown eyes and for her to feel insecure that her mom never taught her Spanish. I don’t want her to visit Puerto Rico and feel insecure with each family member that she meets. I want her to feel her Puerto Rican culture. I want to feel it too. I hold Ordinary Girls in my heart. For its history of Puerto Rico, for reminding me what the island feels like, and for giving ordinary girls like me a chance to see themselves in a book.
Ashley Espinoza is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her work has been published in Hobart, Assay, The Forge Literary Magazine, Orion Magazine, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey and (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic. She is a nonfiction editor for The Good Life Review and is currently writing a memoir.
October 13, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Holly Hagman
The heat of summer still sizzles on the pavement outside when Mom asks me to pick up the sandwiches she’s ordered for lunch. Having slept in, I am still in my pajamas, braless, shorts and flip-flops, clutching my coffee mug in my fist. Despite the warmth outside, I throw the nearest hoodie on top of my sleep-wrinkled clothes and drive to the sub shop. The cool wind from the air conditioning hits my face, and I finally breathe. I walk over to the refrigerated cooler to grab a bottled iced tea when an older woman scratching a lottery ticket looks up at me and smiles.
“Me too,” she says, the noise of her nickel against the table clattering in my ears. I stare at her, confused, under-caffeinated, and hot. She points at my sweatshirt. I look down and read the words in bold blue print: “Book Nerd.” I smile back and nod, grabbing my iced tea and the sandwiches before I check out, leaving the woman and the lie I just told her behind me.
Honestly, at the time this exchange occurred, I hadn’t read a book for pleasure in months. With the required readings for the English classes I teach and the general state of the world, sitting down to read a whole book often resulted in fidgeting, examining the same paragraph for what seemed like hours, then shutting the book and ultimately watching Brooklyn 99 on Hulu for the second time. My brain was already stuffed to the brim with quiz questions to make for Death of a Salesman, vaccine appointment dates, and whatever drama had been trending each day on Twitter. Consuming – and retaining – a new novel or memoir was liable to short-circuit my already fried nerves and cause a total system shutdown.
So I finished Brooklyn 99, and The Good Place, and most of Bones before selecting a hardcover memoir from my TBR pile, grabbing a bookmark from my desk drawer, and starting to read again. Just like that, it was like rekindling a relationship with an old friend. I felt the texture of the pages between my thumb and forefinger, inhaled the scent of the ink, and sighed. It felt like coming home.
Now, I wear my “Book Nerd” sweatshirt fairly often. I wear it when I run to the store, watch a movie, cook dinner, and, increasingly, when I read. I still get sucked into television rabbit holes (don’t even get me started on 90 Day Fiancé) and the books on my shelves continue to multiply, but I take comfort in the fact that we can take a break and still find our way back together, that they will always be there, pages fresh, spines ready to be cracked, quiet and waiting.
Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with her BA in creative writing and her MAT in secondary education. She continued her studies, earning her MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University. She has been an assistant editor for Brevity, the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit, and is currently a nonfiction editor for Variant Literature. Her work can be viewed in The Citron Review, Complete Sentence, and Porcupine Literary. She enjoys collecting coffee mugs and napping with her cats.
September 27, 2021 § 9 Comments
By Shiv Dutta
If you walk into my house and look to the left or to the right or straight ahead, you’ll see piles of books. You’ll see them on the end tables, you’ll see them on the coffee table, you’ll see them even on the dining table. I have no room left for them on my bookshelves.
I’m a book hoarder but I prefer to be called a bibliophile or a bibliophilist or even a bibliomaniac. People get addicted to caffeine or alcohol or smoking. I’m addicted to books. I buy every single book I read. I rarely depend on libraries except for fat and oversize reference books.
The school of hard knocks has taught me never to lend books. I used to lend them before but every single book I ever lent never came back. During my many moves, I’ve given away a lot of my possessions, including TVs, VCRs and DVDs, but I’ve never parted with my books. I still have a copy of Chariots of the Gods by infamous Erich Von Daniken, a book I bought in Canada in 1972 for $1.25; a copy of The Saint by Leslie Charteris I bought eons ago for less than a dollar; and a copy of Men and Women by Hugh Garner I bought in 1973 for $1.
I’ve been buying books for as long as I can remember. Over the years this habit has turned into a private yearning and compulsive need. However, I don’t buy them randomly. There is a method to this madness. I buy mainly memoirs. Occasionally I do buy books of poetry, fictions and essays. I’m usually drawn to books no longer than 250-300 pages. But I let loose my madness when it comes to books by my teachers, mentors and friends. I buy their books regardless of genres or length.
Like blind love, my support for the book industry is unconditional. Every time I have gone to a bookstore to get a particular book, I usually ended up getting several. I always maintain a list of books I want to acquire so I’m never in a fix to decide what to pick. When I have money, food and books are at the top of my priorities. If any money is left I consider spending it on other things!
In case you’re thinking I’m a bibliophile running amok only to satiate my acquisitive predilections, let me hasten to assure you I’m a bibliophage as well.
Stephen King once said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Well, I’m an aspiring writer, and I do make it a point to set aside enough time to read! I buy nearly 50 books a year, and though I aim to read just as many in the same period of time, more often than not, I miss my target. I cannot ever half-read a book even if it fails to hold my interest. I’m a slow reader to boot. Not only do I have to read every single word in the book I read, I have to digest their nuances and subtleties as I go along. In this, I follow what Francis Bacon said almost 400 years ago: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” As a result of the mismatch between my purchase and the reading target, I often end up with a heap of books on my TBR stack. This serves me well because I never find myself without a book when I want to read one.
When I get a new book, the first thing I do is give it a tight hug and feel its soft slick pages. I smell the prints and the covers and read the first couple of pages to find out when the book was published, who published it, is this first book by the author? No, what other books has the author published?
When I’m finished reading it, I always sign my name and add the date I finished it on. The date helps me track the number of books read in a year, and the signature will let whoever the book passes to after me know the identity of the original owner. Maybe he/she’ll put his/her signature below mine, and the book will thus continue to move on and leave a trail of ownership.
Cicero would have been gratified at the sight of so many books in my study! He thought a room without books is like a body without a soul. When I’m in it, surrounded by walls of books, I feel the presence of kindred spirits. I can almost hear them quietly shuffling around and showering me with their blessings. The room seethes with the collective wisdom of legions of muted souls.
James Baldwin wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive,” I hear an echo of my feelings in these words. Books have saved me more than once. In times of loneliness and despondency when I looked for someone or something to reach out and touch, I found succor in their pages. To paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin, books have helped me understand who I am, what other people are thinking and doing and feeling.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” That’s what George R.R. Martin said, and I find myself in concurrence with him. I’ve certainly lived a thousand lives already. To me, books are, to quote Sarah MacLean, “Happiness.” I need them just as much as I need air to breathe.
Shiv Dutta‘s writing has appeared in several places including Brevity Blog, Tampa Review, Under the Sun, Tin House, Hippocampus Magazine, Silk Road Review, Pilgrimage, Connotation Press, The Evansville Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Eclectica Magazine. He has also produced 45 technical papers and co-authored two technical books. Two of his personal essays were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is currently writing his memoirs. When not engaged in literary pursuits, Shiv spends his time on Facebook and music.
August 6, 2021 § 11 Comments
By Matt Caprioli
I’d like to tell you about a morning ritual of mine: The Bradbury.
Basically, I take three random books – poetry, nonfiction, fiction – and read each for 10 minutes. I don’t worry if these books support my projects or whether I’m using my time wisely. I choose to feel zero guilt over commercial vs. literary, whether I skip the beginning, or if I’m actually decreasing the ratio between read and unread books in my New York City apartment. The point of the Bradbury is to read: to open my eyes and let the world in, to find surprise and delight in “my own explicable life.”
That quote comes from a Lucille Clifton poem I encountered today, “Wild Blessings.”
For today’s fiction portion, I read chapter three of Annie and the Wolves by fellow Alaskan author, Andromeda Romano-Lax. Blending historical fiction with a contemporary thriller, the novel alternates between the famed American sharpshooter Annie Oakley and a young historian, Ruth McClintock, who’s obsessed at articulating the unspoken and awful truth behind official documents. The dialogue is especially compelling, and Romano-Lax somehow bridges plausible speech across three centuries. Here’s one admirably restrained example from one of Annie’s battles against yellow journalism:
At her very first trial, in Scranton, the defense lawyer had taunted her. “You’re the woman who used to shoot out here and run along and turn head over heels, allowing your skirts to fall.”
“I beg your pardon,” Annie replied without emotion. “I didn’t allow my skirts to fall.”
For nonfiction, I grabbed What It Means to Write about Art: Interviews with Art Critics. This is a brilliant compilation by Jarrett Earnest of spellbinding interviews with Hilton Als, Chris Kraus, Siri Hustvedt. Today, I started the interview with renowned art critic, Rosalind Krauss. The app on my phone starts, ten minutes per genre, and I don’t pause when life comes up. During the countdown with Krauss, I wanted coffee; I wanted to hug my partner in the kitchen and joke about the co-working space our kitchen has become during Covid. This took about two minutes away from Krauss. But the Bradbury absorbs these incursions. It knows life is more important. What I ultimately took away from the starting the Krauss interview was that at least twice a year, she and Leo Steinberg would have dinner. I love that policy: twice a year, two friends, two dinners.
You may have guessed that The Bradbury comes from Ray Bradbury. My memory has revised it to be a morning ritual, when Bradbury actually suggested this activity at night. I appear to have invented the 10-minute markers, and I have egregiously ignored his advice on avoiding contemporary poetry. I’m fine with this productive misremembering. The point is to reawaken the senses, make the material your own, find your own forms, regardless of social propriety or a publisher’s template.
The Bradbury is orderly and not. The result typically is the same: a refresh for the new day, a reorientation toward life marked by readiness. After this ritual, my mind is jolted to recognize everything in new ways; my eyes enjoy a sort of popping noise, as if they are literally moving closer to the world. My awareness of the world simply reaches a greater resolution, like my vision’s been upgraded from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 12.
Oftentimes, I’ll find titles for potential stories or essays: Practical Nihilism; a Jesuit in Paraguay; Enjoy the Ride; Themes of Sexuality; Player King; Sines and Co-Signs; If You Have to Advertise; Update Your Model; The Subject of Fate; a Life of Constant Improvement.
Forced into Procrustean time limits, I see fragments in greater resolution. Sometimes life interrupts, and I only have a line or two to think about; sometimes those lines are all I needed. One day I only got a paragraph into Rayola (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar. But that paragraph was enough for me to appreciate the granular brilliance of that novel, how well it describes quotidian love: “Oh,” Talita said, picking up the duck and wiping off the footprint with a kitchen rag. “You’ve caved in its ribs. So it’s something else.”
Other days, I will act first and think later, assembling whatever books my groggy eyes first pass. The other day that included a college copy of Candide (happy to report my French has improved!), Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremey Atherton Lin, and The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde.
With The Bradbury, long-standing gaps in my education are unexpectedly closed. One morning I dipped into Basic Writings of Nietzsche to learn that Zarathustra had a lot in common with Dionysius, or “The Dionysian Monster,” as Nietzsche calls him. I had tried to read Thus Spoke Zarathustra in high school and enjoyed the rhythm but zero clue as to who was even speaking. Now, years and years later, I have my clue.
Some books are so good I only want to experience them slowly. This is how I have come to know the tactile atmosphere of Gwendolyn MacEwan’s brilliant travelogue, Mermaids and Ikons: a Greek Summer.: “A Fred Astaire film came on television, and Christina went out into the garden to feed the doves in their big wire cage.” It’s the daily acuity here that builds to such thunderous sentences as:
‘In this country you are drawn like a bow between heaven and earth, and you may come to know life and death as one blinding, fluid reality. The soul is the arrow shot from that bow, only once.”
By this time I’m amped-up and inspired. Beautiful things beget beautiful things, and I’m eager to move my own hands toward something approaching creation.
Matt Caprioli lives in Queens, New York by way of Anchorage, Alaska. His essays and short stories have appeared in Best Gay Stories, Opossum Literary, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and the Netflix docuseries, Worn Stories. His memoir on a mother-son relationship spent driving around Alaska, One Headlight, is forthcoming from Cirque Press. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College and is a CCE/tenure-track writing and literature Lecturer at Lehman College, City University of New York.
July 5, 2021 § 9 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
My mother once visited a book-loving relative on the West Coast, and when I asked her what the house was like, she said, “He decorates like you do.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but her tone of mild disapproval mixed with amusement (and delivered in her heavy Brooklyn accent) implied he had books strewn about, mementos from his travels, items tacked up casually on the wall and art of personal, rather than aesthetic, significance.
My parents’ house where I grew up was also filled with books, and my mother and father have always been voracious readers (not to mention appreciators of art).
But neither of them worked with books the way I do as a writer, teacher and translator. Their home was a place to raise children, sleep and eat. My home, where I do much of my work as an itinerant wordsmith, is the external manifestation of my thoughts, my ongoing projects, not to mention my plans for dozens of writing, translation and journalism ventures I’ve not even begun.
So I let the written word in all forms act as my decorating motif. This approach to home decor reflects where I write. Which is to say, not in an office at a college or on a magazine staff. And perhaps that’s because I began to keep a regular writing practice only as an older person with a day job. Translation: I don’t have a nice, tenured position that comes with a permanent office.
Even at home, my office is wherever I put my laptop at 6 a.m. But pity me not: I’ve arguably commandeered the whole house, with a table in the dining room for writing and another one in the sunroom, in addition to a large, vintage desk in the living room.
Books are everywhere, but that goes without saying. And besides, having stacks of books isn’t enough for me because book covers of favorite tomes are like the faces of loved ones. So I have books propped up on every flat surface the way other people might position vases or porcelain figures. Exhibit A: a French graphic novel sitting on the bedroom radiator so I can see the cover, which features a curly, girlish script overlaid on a thicket of green vines. I don’t read French fluently but I do read beautiful book covers with foreign titles fluently.
Anything that I find inspiring is taped up onto the wall if it’s made of paper or leaning against the wall if it’s solid. Any card that has words on it – especially words like amore or reading – goes on display. The notecard my Australian artist friend drew for me is tacked up next to a pink and green map of Florence, Italy (which is where I met the Australian friend, back when we were ex-pats in the city of Dante). There are also receipts from Italy, plus old letters from my mother, her familiar handwriting doubling as a writing prompt. The things other people would throw away feed my writing soul.
On the wall of the dining room, I have a large event poster the Italian town of Siena gave out for free before a Palio horse race that I witnessed during a semester abroad. Later, my father framed it, perhaps sensing that I would forever see my life as divided in two – the period before I visited Italy and every moment of reluctant exile that came afterward.
The whole house is wired to pulse me with inspiration, and to envelop me in cozy, literary familiarity.
Initially it wasn’t something I consciously sought. In my 20s and early 30s, I moved from place to place and state to state, working my through journalism jobs, and I wasn’t ever especially interested in interior decorating. I don’t care to know exactly what a pillow sham is. But the process by which I have assembled a kind of mosaic of visual influences and inspirations feels vital – and not a habit I want to part with. There never seems to be enough time for all the ideas I want to pursue but I take solace in the walls of my house and the surface of my desk beaming back to me all the things that occupy my mind.
Indeed, after a while, I realized this approach was essential. When we left Atlanta in 2017 for a new life in Connecticut, the boxes that rode with us in the car contained nothing anyone would ever want to steal, nothing that the movers could break, but everything that had nurtured a fledgling writer’s life: my journals, my books, my papers, my mementos, my private correspondence, and a manila envelope full of the special talismans I had placed around my computer for inspiration. I would desperately need them all in Connecticut when I felt completely untethered from the engine that had powered my writing life.
In essence, I want my home to look like the inside of my mind. And that’s where I store all my grand writing plans. To help me focus, I have seeded the house with photos, strategically chosen to stoke my memoir instinct. Take the photo of my uncle and my grandparents in their home in Bayonne, N.J., which I found after his premature death. They are in the kitchen during what’s likely a family party in the 1960s, judging by the type of photo paper. He had lived in the house his whole life, and it’s the house my father grew up in, where his grandparents had also lived, and which remains in the family. Other families may retain pedigreed estates with fancy names. Not our clan. It’s a rickety, three-story house in a quirky working-class, New Jersey city that doesn’t make you think “The Garden State.” But the house looms so large in my memory, perhaps because my father and his siblings have long referred to it as “Ten East,” an abbreviation of the street address. “Back when I was still living at Ten East…” Or, “Up in the third floor at Ten East…” This mythology is something I hope to probe through writing. Hence the photo, reminding me there are stories to tell.
You could call it all the chaos of reading and writing. Maybe it’s a consolation prize for trying to make it in the literary world, which is the wordsy equivalent of Hollywood — in other words, a cut-throat industry where few succeed but many aspire. I haven’t written a book nor do I have an agent. But one part of my literary life is thriving – and it’s this monument I am building day by day to all the things that fire my imagination.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. You can find her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.
June 18, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Elizabeth Garber
It was the first day of summer vacation, about 1960, the end of third grade. I sat in the small rocking chair next to a bookcase in the dining room in our old Victorian house. I saw a faded blue bound book with a title that tempted me. I Capture the Castle. The house was quiet. My brothers were napping. I must have begged off my nap, which was rare because my mother always told me “You, of all people, need so much sleep or you are not good for anything.” I usually read through naps, perfecting my face to look asleep if my mother passed by, ready to slip my book out from under the covers. But that day the house was quiet and it was mine. I remember the light coming in the windows and stretching across the floor where my brothers’ wooden blocks spread over the floor.
I pulled the book from the shelf of grown-up books, and opened to a drawing of a kitchen in an old castle. I knew the book was too old for me, but I wanted to read it so much. It was about a girl writing in a journal. She started: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it: the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I was padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cozy.”
I loved English words like tea-cozy. The narrator was a writer, and I’d begun my first journal. She was sitting in such an unusual way, like someone I’d be a friend with. But at that moment a spindly spider crawled out of the arched space between the sewn binding and the cloth spine and headed down the page. His fine legs like cactus spines tiptoed over the words I wanted to read. I slammed the book shut and threw it down on the floor. My heart pounded. I quickly picked up the book with my fingertips; afraid the spider would pull himself out between the pages and crawl on my hand. I shoved the book back on the shelf, my happiness slammed in with the spider.
I glanced sadly at the book for years, remembering the spider. Even when we moved years later to a modern glass house, the book stayed out of reach.
When I was sixteen, on a quiet afternoon when I was desperate for a book, I glanced at the book shelves, and remembered. I took the fade blue book and opened carefully. The husk of the spider slid off the page. I sat down and as I began to read, the book became mine, written by a girl who wrote in journals. It was perfect. She was me.
I couldn’t bear to let the book leave my bedside table. I’d turn on my side before falling asleep and glance at that book. As if the secret of me was inside. I didn’t believe anyone knew me well enough that I could trust them read the book. It would reveal too much about who I really was.
A year later, I knew I’d truly fallen in love with my first boyfriend when I realized I had to lend him the book. But it was such a risk. Would he understand?
Elizabeth says I have to read a book she loves. She holds the faded book to her chest before placing it in my hands. She’s excited and nervous. I don’t really get how a book written in the 1930’s or something in England could be too revealing for her to share. I smile and reassure her. But I hope I’ll like the book.
Kids at school think we’re kind of weird cause we’re so into books, but that’s part of why I fell in love with her. In English class, we competed over Drieser’s American Tragedy in English class. We’d meet at our lockers to compare pages read. One day she crowed, “I got to page 580!”
I grinned, “Sorry kiddo, I’m at 614.”
So I read I Capture the Castle. In the first paragraph there’s this girl writing in her journal. Her name’s Cassandra. I get right from the start why so many things are perfect for Elizabeth: a long elegant name with no nickname, the narrator is quirky and funny yet insecure about whether her poetry’s any good, and she’s absolutely determined to write everything in her journal. Elizabeth says she finally found someone really like her even though Cassandra’s going on about tea time, and dying dresses with green dye, and exploring the castle. The voice starts to become Elizabeth’s voice, as if I can imagine her writing it.
After a while, the novel becomes a kind of comedy of errors, mistaken identities and hiding under bear skins, all quite light, but through it all the narrator is determined to do the right thing. She works so hard to keep the family together and to understand everyone, and to bring out the best in their crazy father, always hoping that he’ll get better. In contrast to Elizabeth’s dad who keeps getting worse and angrier. The book is a comedy, and the book’s dad actually comes through in the end.
Is this what Elizabeth is hoping, that her dad will get better, and is this really why this is her favorite book, even though she thinks it’s because the heroine writes in a journal?
When I hand back the book, her eyes are so vulnerable. I say, “Yes, the book is perfect. You are Cassandra.” And she cries.
Elizabeth W. Garber is the author of Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter (2018), and four books of poetry. Three poems have been read on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Low Residency Program. She was awarded writing fellowships at Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Jentel Artist Residency Program in Wyoming. She is currently pitching her new memoir, Not As Lost As I Thought: The True Story of a Girl at Sea, about when she was eighteen, attended a hippie high school on a derelict square rigger and encountered pirates, avoided a near sinking, was held hostage in Panama, and broke free from tyranny at home. More at: www.elizabethgarber.com.