Sunday, December 20, 2009

And They Say Men Don't Read

Well, maybe men don't read books. But according to a new essay in The New York Times Book Review, they steal them.

Margo Rabb, author of the Missing Persons Mysteries and Cures for Heartbreak, wrote said essay, Steal These Books, in which she describes the most popular books lifted by lovers of literature. It's heartening to read that one bookstore general manager believes that it is mostly younger men who are doing the stealing.

Because I try to think well of people, I have decided to believe that after they get their hot little hands on their ill-gotten books, those younger men do read them. It could happen.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Modeling Writing

In my former life as a professional mom, I was often perplexed by how little nonfiction of the essay and memoir variety my kids read in elementary school. This was a big problem in my mind because they were frequently asked to write essays and sometimes even about themselves. Yet as far as I could tell, they had nothing to model their writing upon. Connecticut had standardized testing before anyone had ever heard of No Child Left Behind, and the writing portion of those tests didn't involve novels, it involved multiple paragraph essays. The Gauthier kids' teachers scrambled to provide instruction, but how much easier it would have been for them "to get it" if they ever read examples of what it was they were supposed "to get."

I used to spend my time hunting for essays for my kids to read. By the time they were in sixth grade, I was passing them some of Joel Stein's Time Magazine essays. You know, his "self-focused humor column". Come on. He used thesis statements and topic sentences.

What I really wanted was Jon Scieszka's Knucklehead. But it wasn't available then. Scieszka's memoir of "Growing Up Scieszka" is filled with short, readable chapters about his life as a child. (I'm not going to make much of the fact that he was a boy child, because I think girls will enjoy this book, too.) And while I didn't notice much in the way of thesis statements and topic sentences, I did see a lot of material that could make child readers think, "Hey! I could do this! I could write about the strange books I have to read at school. I could write about my grandparents. I could write about Halloween, my siblings' injuries, things I've bought, games I've played" and about thirty-one other subjects since Scieszka includes thirty-eight chapters.

Coming up with material is hard for a lot of kids. Knucklehead could provide inspiration for some of them. After all, learning to write will come a whole lot easier if you have something to write about.

Training Report: You haven't seen one of these in a long time, have you? At the beginning of the week I found a journal to which I could submit the essay I spent so much time on this summer. And I submitted it.

Essays, which we were discussing in this post, anyway, are kind of problematic. You feel this overwhelming need to express yourself about something that has happened to you that you think has some connection to the greater world, to humankind, and then what do you do with it? It's not easy to find potential markets for some of these personal essays. For instance, earlier this week I did a rough draft of what might be called a flash essay about washing windows. What am I going to do with that?

A writer could, of course, write essays that publications are actually looking for. I just read today that Drunken Boat is looking for 1000 word or less "nonfiction perspectives from around the world on the effect of the global economic crisis." The writing prompt becomes more specific, and I'm sure someone could do a personal essay with it. But the phrase "global economic crisis" is freaking me out.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The David Sedaris Lesson Plan

Earlier this month, I was doing an on-line connection thing with some creative writing students in a high school in Vermont. One of the students asked me about my favorite writers. The only name I can recall giving her was David Sedaris's, in large part because the young woman responded that she liked him, too. I recommended reading his essays to another student, who also said she was already familiar with him.

Then I started reading his most recent book When You Are Engulfed In Flames while I was on vacation, and I began to wonder if I wanted to be the one to tip the young off to the many wonders of Sedaris. The guy writes about getting high. Regularly. For decades. He writes about getting drunk. Nightly. For decades. He writes about hitchhiking! And, then, of course, what would a David Sedaris anthology be without frequent mentions of demon nicotine?

I eat all this stuff up, myself, but I had some anxious moments while I was reading this latest book. Could I get into trouble for recommending him to the impressionable young?

Then I realized that Sedaris has given up weed, alcohol, and Kools, and he has never cheated on a boyfriend. The guy's a flipping role model!

That being the case, I came up with some David Sedaris writing assignments:

1. David Sedaris writes about his experiences taking foreign language classes in France and Japan. Write an essay about your experience taking foreign language classes in your school. Seriously, do you think your instructor has a clue what s/he's saying to you? Does s/he really know anything about the language s/he's teaching or is s/he just onto a really sweet thing standing in front of a bunch of kids and spouting gibberish?

2. In one of his essays Sedaris writes about a somewhat odd woman who lived next door to him. Write an essay about an odd person who lives next door to you. The neighbor may be male or female. You'll get extra credit for including details about the neighbor's unpleasant health problems.

3. Sedaris wrote an essay about giving his companion a skeleton for Christmas. Write an essay about a really good present you've given someone.

4. Sedaris describes catching flies to feed his spider, April, in one of his pieces. Write an essay about your pet. Does it have any unusual dietary needs?

5. In one essay David Sedaris tells us that while visiting a doctor's office in Paris, he didn't understand a French nurse's instructions about what to do after he disrobed. So, naturally, he ended up sitting in the waiting room in his underwear. Write an essay about something embarrassing that you've done. Not something embarrassing that happened to you. Something embarrassing you've done.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

But Seriously, Folks...

Joe Queenan (I read his book My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-Lived Search for Sainthood but remember just about nothing about it) had an essay in last weekend's New York Times Sunday Book Review called Enough With the Sweet Talk. It was an amusing piece about the abundance of "unjustifiably enthusiastic" book reviews. Queenan's angle involved the response of authors who have received such reviews, and he quotes a number of them on the subject. Dave Barry was once called the funniest man in America in a review. In an e-mail message to Queenan he said, "This is a ridiculous assertion; I am not the funniest man in my neighborhood."

As I said, the essay was clever and witty and all that. But, you know, Queenan is touching on something more serious. You do see an awful lot of positive reviews, so much so that I've sometimes wondered if reviewers at print journals get more work if they're careful to only say nice things. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to pick up on the fact that perhaps not everything is as glorious as it may seem. Is "Will call to mind Holden Caulfield" really praise or a warning that this book has been done before? Is "filled with southern eccentrics" code for run for your life?

When I was a senior in college about to apply for teaching jobs, I was told that school superintendents in Vermont were insisting on written assessments for student teaching for UVM grads because everyone was receiving A's. In a pool of candidates that are all excellent, excellent doesn't mean much.

When all books are wonderful, don't we lose touch with what wonderful means?

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Friday, May 02, 2008

I Am Stunned, Stunned, I Tell You

David Sedaris has finished with smoking! I am shaken to my core. What will he write about? His career is over!

I know that isn't very kidlittie, but, remember, I have my essayist fantasy to take care of.

Link by way of Justine Larbalestier because, come on, you didn't actually think I read The New Yorker, did you? Big magazine. Comes out every week.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Not Kidlit But All About Me, Me, Me

Literary Mama has selected my essay, Mom Memory, as one of its Favorite 2007 Literary Mama writing in the creative nonfiction category. I know I don't usually pay a lot of attention to "Best of the Year" lists, but under the circumstances...

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Daniel Handler Does Essays

I forgot to mention in my party post that among the YA (or YAish) books my friends discussed Friday evening was the A Series of Unfortunate Events series. Two people didn't like the books, one person loved them, and I didn't get them. I loved the idea behind the series, I just didn't quite get the joke.

I was reminded of all that today when I read MONEY TALES
Author Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket talks about the last taboo
, an article about Handler's essay, Wining, in an anthology called Money Changes Everything.

Since I enjoy reading about Daniel Handler, I very much regret that I didn't get into his kids' books more than I did. And now I've found out he writes essays, which makes him even more attractive as far as I'm concerned. If you can't get hold of Money Changes Everything, you can check out another of Handler's essays,Adjusted Income, a variation on the same subject as it turns out.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Look! Look! I'm In The Horn Book!

Today I received my copies of The Horn Book special issue on Boys and Girls. A goodly number of children's and YA authors contributed pieces on how gender has had an impact on them as readers or writers. It was very gratifying to have been included.

Please notice that alphabetically I come just before John Green and just after Sarah Ellis, who wrote a great story about Evelyn Waugh.That is not to say that John Green's piece isn't great, too. I just haven't read it, yet.


Monday, August 13, 2007

A Lot Of Talk. A Little Action.

I've written here a lot about what I'm sure many readers think of as my obsession with essays and essay writing. Well, now you can read my recent creative nonfiction effort, Mom Memory, which was published by Literary Mama.

That's one essay a year for the past two years. I'm going to have to hustle if I want to keep up that pace.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Perhaps I Haven't Gone Over To The Essay Side After All

When I came upon Anne Fadiman's seventeen-page essay on ice cream in At Large and At Small, I said, "Nope. I am not reading that."

I am not saying it's a bad essay. I am not saying there's anything wrong with ice cream. I am saying I have my limits.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

What's Happening To Me?

I gave up reading The New York Times Book Review several years ago when a family member gave up reading The Sunday New York Times and passing the Book Review on to me. I wasn't too cheap to buy the paper. Honestly. But the odds of my being able to read two Sunday newspapers were very, very low. I would fall months behind just reading the Book Review. In fact, I bought the Sunday Times, myself, back in May and just found the half-read Book Review in my laundry room. I can't begin to guess what it was doing there. Besides not being read, of course.

The end result of my not reading the Book Review is that I no longer have a very good grasp of what is going on in adult fiction. I find myself standing in front of the new fiction shelves at libraries going What do I do? What do I do? So many books. Which ones should I take off the shelves and look at?

This, people, is why we need book reviews--so that people like myself won't be overwhelmed in libraries and bookstores.

Anyway, I was in I'm a Reading Fool's library yesterday freaking out in front of its sizable new fiction section when I decided to go look at the new nonfiction. I went right to the essay shelf and thought, Why, that looks good and that looks good and that looks good. I took a number of things off the shelf and gave them the once over.

And what did I find but Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small, which I actually knew about because of a post at Chasing Ray.

How weird is that?

So even though I now have a stack of books next to my bed that is nearly a foot high, I read one of Fadiman's essays last night. I was afraid The Unfuzzy Lamb was going to be about nature or agriculture because the first essay in the collection appeared to be about collecting butterfies, which led me to skip it. But, no, The Unfuzzy Lamb is about Charles Lamb.

Now, I actually have a modest interest in Lamb. He was one of the more accessible writers in my Romantic Period class as an undergraduate. (Though I found myself strangely attracted to Thomas DeQuincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, too.) I have a vague recollection of beginning some kind of contemporary version of Lamb's Dream Children many years ago. God only knows what happened to that.

Anyway, Fadiman's essay on Lamb was very readable and interesting. But what I kept thinking as I read it was, Where do you publish an essay on Charles Lamb? And who the Hell is going to read it? Besides me, of course. It turns out Fadiman published her Lamb essay in The American Scholar, not a publication that I have a lot of familiarity with. Or, to be honest, had even heard of before last night. It may publish essays about Lamb all the time, and I'd never know.

I've read Fadiman's Ex Libris, though I can't say it made much of an impression on me. I know it is somewhere in this house, and I can even pinpoint the room. Beyond that, it will probably be a major effort to find it. But it might be worth taking another look.

Anyway, my post title is What's Happening To Me? so I should get around to saying something about that. What I'll say is I went into a library, was flummoxed in front of the fiction and happy in front of the essays. That's a shift, people. I'm shifting. That's what's happening to me.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Well, Yes, A Lot Of Them Were Depressing

I read many of the essays in The Best American Essays 2006 and liked what I read. Lauren Slater was the guest editor who had the task of making the final cut from around one hundred essays that had been screened for her. She admits she was dwelling on death a bit, and a lot of the essays at least flirted with that subject. One of my favorites, Grammar Lessons by Michele Morano, deals with a depressing romance, which isn't death but still a downer. (The author now has a book of essays out called Grammar Lessons.)

Oddly enough, I happen to own a copy of The Best American Essays of 1996, which I never read much of because I didn't care for it. I'm going to take another look. Perhaps my tastes have matured in the last ten years. Or at least changed.


Monday, July 16, 2007

How Weird Is This?

Last night I read Sam Pickering's essay, George, in The Best American Essays 2006. This morning, I skimmed an interview with Anne Fadiman that I heard about through Chasing Ray. In the interview, Fadiman discusses "familiar essays."

My first thought was, Dear God, I just can't keep up. "Familiar essays?" Fadiman describes them as being a subset of the personal essay. " is about the author, so it is a subset of the personal essay, but it is also about a subject." Hmmm. I thought the personal essay was about something related to the author that had universal significance. Wouldn't that "something related to the author" be "a subject?" Do we really need two terms?

Then I started thinking about Pickering's essay, George. Wouldn't that be called a familiar essay?

The thing is, though, Pickering was the teacher for the only graduate course I've ever attended, and I don't recall him using the term "familiar essay." Unless, of course, he used it during the first two or three class sessions when I had trouble understanding him because he speaks with a heavy southern accent.

So, anyway, I started hunting for George on-line because it was originally published in a journal and journals sometimes post content on-line. I didn't find it, but I did find Sam Pickering's curriculum vitae, and on it he divides his writings under various categories. Lo and behold, one of them is "Familiar Essays." And toward the end of the nearly seven pages of titles, you'll find George.

How bizarre is that? I've never heard of the term "familiar essay" until this morning, at which point I realize I'd just read one last night.

I'm thinking of writing a familiar essay about having my ceilings painted.

By the way, BDT is very fond of Pickering's book, Letters to a Teacher.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Why I Nag

A family member has asked several times recently why I seem to be so committed to nagging. One day I realized that the subject of nagging would make a great essay topic. Why I Nag. I could cover the rewards of nagging (it works), my connection to a long line of honorable naggers through my maternal line, nagging's place in the greater society, how nagging has been perceived throughout history, turning points in history that were influenced by nagging, nagging as the foundation of the American family...

I see this piece ending up as one of those never-ending New Yorker articles. Hell, I see it ending up as a book.

When I told my family member that I thought Why I Nag would make a great essay topic, he said, "How come you want to write about everything that happens? Everything?"

And I thought, Gee, that would make a great essay. I could write about all the things from my life that inspired every aspect of my books. And then I could get started on all the life experiences that inspired my unpublished writings, of which I have very, very many. And when I finished with that, I could write about all the things I've been inspired to write but haven't gotten around to yet. And then...