Help for the Restless Reader

mgyp0LmIn recent years, I’ve become a restless reader.

I just can’t relax. Maybe it’s because I spend so many weeks of the year reading stuff I don’t feel like reading, including some really terrible writing, because I’m an English teacher. Maybe it’s because the Internet age has broken my brain. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult with adult responsibilities, like emptying the dishwasher and watching all four seasons of Scott and Bailey as fast as possible. Whatever the explanation, I look back fondly on my childhood days of curling up in an armchair or on my bed and reading for hours and hours, but I just can’t seem to do it any more.

This summer, a number of niggling projects have eaten away at my time, and I’ve felt even less inclined to abandon everything and read a book. Once the first of August loomed, though, a sort of reader’s panic set in. School is coming! I will have no time to do the things I want to do! All those library books will have to be returned unread! Read, dammit, read!

And yet the deficit in my attention remained, until I hit on a possible remedy.

I’ve heard references over the last couple of years to the Pomodoro Technique, a productivity aid in which you set a timer for 25 minutes and work intensively for that time, then take a 5-minute break, and then get back at it for another 25 minutes. I’ve never read any of the Pomodoro Technique literature or implemented any of the more complex elements of this technique, like tracking how many 25-minute increments a task requires, or recapping what was achieved in the last 25 minutes and reviewing before I take a break. (I have watched the little video on their website; that’s how I know these things are required if I want to be a “Certified Pomodoro Master”.)

However, I think a lot of teachers probably do their own variations on the Pomodoro technique. For example, I almost always grade papers one at a time, taking a short break after each to go put on a load of laundry, make a cup of tea, or go out in the garden to pick some tomatoes for lunch. Teachers also live our lives in defined and limited time intervals: the 15-week semester; the two-hour classroom block; the four-hour break between classes in which we planned to go to yoga but in which we’ll probably just eat chocolate and read our Bloglovin’ feed.

The Pomodoro technique, at least in its broad strokes, appeals to me, especially when it comes to really onerous tasks. I recently procrastinated creating a research questionnaire for almost two months; telling myself I only had to work on it for 25 minutes a day meant I finally got it done within a week. I think I could make it work for housecleaning, too.  (Maybe.) (Not holding my breath.)

But then a couple of days ago, I thought: I bet reading in 25-minute spells would make me a happier reader.

So I tried it. It helped that it was no longer 41 degrees outside (that’s 106 for you Americans), so I could spend my reading time on the deck. I set my phone alarm to a pleasant melody. I poured myself some sparkling water. I made room on my comfy patio armchair for the cat. And then I forgot about everything else I had to do for 25 full minutes.

After the alarm went off, I dumped the book I’d been reading into my library bag, because it was now clear that I hadn’t been making time for it previously because I didn’t really like it. I made myself a cup of tea. I emptied the dishwasher. I pulled a few more books out of my “unread books” pile, returned to the deck, and set the timer again. This time, one of the books grabbed me right away. I have been reading it in 25-minute increments for the last two afternoons, until it’s dark or rainy enough to go inside, make dinner, and crochet in front of the TV, no longer feeling any conflict about not reading, because I have more reading to look forward to sometime tomorrow!

As a result, I’ve had a beautifully relaxing and nourishing couple of days. In the morning, I write and go for a run, and take care of any other urgent tasks. Then I settle in, without feeling like I’m trying to fill a whole empty afternoon: I’m just taking 25 minutes to do something enjoyable, and then I can deal with something practical, briefly, if need be. For someone like me, who constantly feels like some important task is not being taken care of, this practice allows me to really sink into a book, come up for air, and then sink in again. It allows me to spend the last days of my vacation reading, something I’d been planning to do from the first days, but for some reason just couldn’t.

Things I’ve learned from this practice:

  • If you don’t feel like reading it for 25 minutes, chuck it. The world is full of amazing books that you want to read right now; go find one.
  • Whatever you think needs to be done instead of reading, it can probably wait for 25 minutes.
  • I need to create a reading space inside my house that is as comfy and inviting and peaceful as that deck chair.

I’m going to suggest this technique to my students, especially those who have trouble reading long texts: set aside a block of time to get your reading done, but break it into 25-minute intervals. Keep track of how much you get read in that time, and use that information to figure out how much time you need to read a given text. In between intervals, get up and move. Too much sitting is bad for you anyway.

Are you a compulsive reader who will shunt everything off to read all day? Or do you find yourself distracted by Facebook, work email, and the children’s’ need to be fed and spoken to? How do you make time for reading? This method is working for me, but I’d love to hear yours.

Image by sanja gjenero

Nellie Returns

Nellie and the Coven of Barbo is back! After a hiatus of a few weeks to wrap up the school term, I have returned to the regular publication schedule.

In today’s chapter, we pick up where we left off: kids have disappeared, other kids are concerned, strange conversations have been overheard, and now two classmates have run into one another down by the river in the middle of the night…

You’ll find the latest chapter here.

If you’d like to start at the beginning, go here.

Happy reading! And if you haven’t yet, please subscribe; chapters will appear once or twice weekly for the rest of the summer.

Time to Catch Up With Nellie

If you’ve been postponing reading Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, my YA adventure novel about preteen angst, new beginnings, and witches, now would be a good time to get caught up on the first 15 short chapters. 

Nellie will return on MONDAY, MAY 18, after I’ve plowed through all this test preparation, essay grading and research proposal writing.  While you’re waiting, check out the shenanigans of Nellie and her friends as they try to work out where two of their schoolmates have disappeared to, and why.

Let me know what you think!

Ten Chapters In: Thoughts on Online Serial Novel Writing

What are you going to do with your long weekend? Maybe you’d like to read the first ten short chapters of a serialized novel about a twelve-year-old girl who suspects something funny is going on in her small town of Gale Harbour, Newfoundland.  If so, you will find this novel, Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, over here.

So far, the process of serializing a novel has been 1. inspiring and 2. discouraging, in about equal measure.  I’m considering taking a break from the serial in order to reassess my decision to self-publish in serial form.  Here are some of the considerations.

1. Publishing in installments, giving myself deadlines, and knowing that someone is reading what I write as I write it: this is an approach that works very well for me.  Having struggled with long manuscripts throughout my writing life, I know that I become easily bogged down and demotivated. A slow and steady pace, out where people can see me working, is ideal. Blogging here on Classroom as Microcosm taught me this, and for some time now, I’ve been wondering if blogging a novel would have the same effect.  It has.

2. It is hard not to be a bit disappointed with the lack of response that an online novel receives in contrast to, say, a blog about education and pedagogy.  To give some perspective: when I was publishing posts weekly on Classroom as Microcosm, hits averaged at about 10,000 views a month; even now, the blog receives about 300 random views of archived posts per day, despite the fact that new posts are rare.  This is a drop in the bucket in the blogosphere, but it’s enough for me to feel that the blog is meaningful to others and not just me.  In contrast, when I publish a new chapter on Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, it receives about 30 hits that day, and a sprinkling in the days following.  The novel has 30 subscribed followers, most of whom are family and friends.  I am extremely grateful for these views and followers, and for the occasional encouraging messages I get through email, Facebook and face-to-face conversation.  At the same time, I feel that there MIGHT be other people out in the world who would enjoy this little story, and I have no idea how to get it to them.  Yes, I’ve built Classroom as Microcosm over many years and I’ve been blogging my novel for only a couple of months, but I realize now that I was expecting a bit more cross-pollination.

3. This leads to the question of promotion.  I am not comfortable with self-promotion, and I know I need to just suck it up and do it.  I share the links on StumbleUpon, Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve tried listing the novel with curators of serials, like Muse’s Success, WebFictionGuide, and Tuesday Serial. Some friends have kindly shared and retweeted links to the novel, and this has brought in some new readers, but none of these methods have been successful in increasing readership very much.  I have searched in vain for blogs that review self-published online serial fiction; they must be out there, and I’ll keep looking.  I’m even toying with the idea of starting my own, but I can only stretch myself so thin.

4. For the above reasons, I’m considering moving my online novel to a platform like Jukepop or Wattpad, forums that exist exclusively for publishing, promoting and communicating about serial online fiction.  It’s fantastic that sites like this exist, and I know a lot of writers get a huge boost from them. Here’s the catch, though: I have explored these platforms and browsed their offerings, and a lot of what is published there is…just not my thing.  I click on book covers and summaries and I have not yet felt the impulse to read more; when I’ve made the deliberate decision to read a first chapter, it’s felt like a duty rather than a pleasure, and I’m struck by how different the aesthetic is from mine.  I’m not sure my story fits in these places. On the surface, there’s no reason why not: it is, or will be, a genre novel, a YA/middle-grade adventure novel with a fantasy bent – but it’s quiet, slow and character-driven, in contrast to the most popular Jukepop and Wattpad stories, which seem to be big on plot and not so concerned about, say, the quality of the prose.  I’m SURE there are stories I’d love on these platforms, but I haven’t found them yet, which suggests that they may be…hard to find.

5. On a similar note: I should be reading lots of serialized online fiction, to get a sense of that community, but as a writer, I can’t invest my hours in reading fiction unless it’s really good, and finding the really good stuff seems to take an enormous amount of time.  I have a coffee table and a Kobo full of awesome library books; I need someone out there to put all the terrific online fiction in one place so I don’t have to waste my reading hours combing through everything ever published online.  Again: if I were a better person, this would be me. It probably won’t be me.  Has someone else done it?

6. Why don’t I just submit the novel to a traditional publisher, you ask? Don’t even get me started.  Well, do, if you’re really interested; I’ll be happy to get into it in the comments if you want.

7. One response to all this could be: why are you so concerned about who is/how many people are reading? Why not just write because writing is fun, and audience be damned? Well, that’s a good question.  The answer is: I have spent many years writing stuff and putting it in a drawer, and it is NOT satisfying, it is NOT fulfilling, and it is killing my desire to write fiction at all.  As I tell my students sometimes: the tool of writing did not arise so that people could indulge themselves in self-expression in their own little isolated caves. We learned to write so we could communicate.

8. Of course, it’s possible that the novel is just not all that good.  The positive feedback has mostly been from people who know me, and anyone who makes art knows to take “Great job!”s from loved ones with big grains of salt.  That said: my friends and family are intelligent, discerning and artistically accomplished people. I take their good opinions seriously. This novel is flawed, for sure; I would love to have a professional editor polish every chapter before it goes up.  That said, I think there’s something there. If you read some of it and you agree, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  If you read some of it and decide it’s a big pile of garbage…well, my skin may not be thick enough to take that kind of commentary right now, but I’ll let you know when it is.

Do you have advice? If you’ve self-published online, or know something about that process, or have any thoughts at all about what to do with a novel like mine in the bizarre world of publishing today, or know of terrific online fiction that is well worth the investment of my and your precious reading hours…please give us your thoughts on any of this. Even if you have read some of my novel installments and think they’re terrible (again: please don’t tell me), I’m sure there are other fiction writers struggling with these questions who would like to hear your ideas. I feel like there are terrific opportunities about to open up in the world of online fiction, but they aren’t quite there yet, and I want to know which direction we should all face so we can see them as soon as they blossom.

To read Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, go here.



My Other Blog is a Novel: Introducing “Nellie and the Coven of Barbo”

Dear readers:

Where have I been? I’ve been writing a little novel. It’s about half done. I’m going to post it, as a serial, on a blog. If you’d like to read it, it starts here.

The working title is Nellie and the Coven of Barbo. It’s an adventure story about being a twelve-year-old girl.  There will be some witches.

Here’s the (temporary) blurb:

Cornelia (Nellie) Pike has always believed that she’s an extraordinary person meant to accomplish important things.  As she begins seventh grade, she’s haunted by the feeling that something’s not right with the world, especially with her friend Lake – and that maybe it’s her destiny to make things right. But one strange event follows another, and Nellie begins to wonder if her friends, and not she, are the extraordinary ones. What’s a girl to do if she suspects that she’s nothing special, and that this might be her greatest gift?

Chapter One is just a few pages long; I hope you’ll go read it.  If you like it, I hope you’ll subscribe, and send the link to other people you think might like it, and “Like” the post, and then read Chapter Two.

The story will progress by a chapter or two each week until summer vacation, when I’ll pick up the pace.

I’d love to hear what you think!

My Top 10 Books of 2014

sigofallthingsIt’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2014, but they were all a part of my 2014 experience.

This year’s list is compromised slightly by the introduction of the Summer Book Club, a totally fun summer project in which I posted about the best books I read each week.  Accordingly, I have linked back to reviews of Summer Book Club favourites, rather than repeating myself.  However, there are a few new entries here – I got a little bit of reading done even when I wasn’t on holiday!

1. The Signature of All Things: Elizabeth Gilbert’s blockbuster manages to be a thrilling 500-page adventure story about a 19th-century moss expert.  It is amazing.  Full review here.

2. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chaz has written and drawn one of the finest graphic memoirs ever, about her struggle to care for her aging and loony parents.  Will make you cry; will also make you laugh until you fall off the couch.  Full review here.

3. Astonish Me: On the surface, a book about ballet, but really a book about the many manifestations of unrequited love.  Full review here.  Maggie Shipstead is my best discovery of the year; Seating Arrangements also blew my socks off.

4. The Middlesteins: Jami Attenberg’s family saga about how hard it is to love people, especially when they’re intent on destroying themselves.  Full review here.

thesecretplace_us5. The Secret Place: I was surprised not to see this book get more attention – it did not, for example, show up in the NY Times’ top 100 books of the year – but I may be a bit blind when it comes to Tana French.  As I’ve said before, I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but she is a consistent exception. This book is one of my favourites of hers, although that may be due to some of my other biases: I love stories about cliques of teenage girls, and have been a sucker for boarding-school stories since I was a child reading Enid Blyton.  In this installment in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, Holly Mackey – whom we first met as a six-year-old in Faithful Place, which I reread immediately after finishing this one – is now a sullen teenager, and she shows up at the police station with information about a year-old cold case, the murder of a boy her age on her school grounds.  The Secret Place unfolds over a single day of interrogation, replete with lots of flashbacks.  The thing to love most about French’s books is her characters: Holly, her friends and enemies, her father, the police officer she turns to and his belligerent partner are all seductively drawn, and the atmosphere of menace that hangs over the school is due in large part to the very real teenagers within, and the lengths they will go to to be themselves, regardless of what it will do to others.

6. Asterios Polyp: A dreamlike graphic novel about an architect who floats out of his unraveling life and into a job as a car mechanic in the middle of nowhere.  Mysterious and moody, it has haunted me ever since.  Full (if brief) review here.

7. The Property: I love Rutu Modan’s graphic novels, and this one is no exception. Her bright, colourful, meticulous panels and her sharp sense of humour illuminate challenging subjects: in this case, a woman and her grandmother visit Warsaw on a mission that turns out not to be what the granddaughter expects.  Full review here.

the-dinner8. The Dinner: I sometimes say that I’m no longer capable of enjoying a book that doesn’t have a sense of humour.  I’m not sure whether The Dinner contradicts me or not.  If it does have a sense of humour, it’s a very bitter one.  It’s difficult to talk about the book without giving too much away, and it’s difficult to put my finger on just what’s so wonderful about it, aside from the easy, clean, yet unsettling narrative voice.  Perhaps its greatest strength is its ability to tap into the most unappealing thoughts we’ve ever had.  For example: imagine you walk into the only ATM in your neighbourhood, to find your path to the cash machine blocked by a sleeping homeless person and the air to be filled with an odour so vile you have to back out the door.  What is your first emotional response, the one you then tamp down because you are a good and empathetic person?  What if you were the sort of person who didn’t tamp down this response?  That’s what this book is about.  It’s impossible to put down.

bark9. Bark: If you’re a reader and also a writer, you already love Lorrie Moore and don’t need to hear too much more about her.  Birds of America is for my money the greatest short story collection of the 20th century.  Bark is also great.  The conceit – that of the various meanings of the word “bark” – was a bit thin to me, but it doesn’t matter; I kept falling over because of her turns of phrase and wry asides, gems like “My brain’s a chunk of mud next to hers” or “It wasn’t he who was having sex.  The condom was having sex and he was just trying to stop it.”  (I found those by just opening the book open to random pages.  It’s astonishing.)

nathp10. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.: I picked up this book in bookstores a couple of times and put it down again because I thought, Really?  We need more books about self-important young male writers dating in Brooklyn? Then I had to go into the hospital for a bit, and for some reason, it struck me as exactly the book I wanted to read.  I read the first 100 pages lying in bed waiting for surgery.  Then, when I got home, I didn’t pick it up again for several months, until one day I finished a book and didn’t have another new one handy; I plowed through the remainder of it in no time flat.  It is the classic problem of the unsympathetic narrator who is revealing truths that may or may not be important – if nothing else, anyone who’s ever been a young heterosexual female artist will recognize Nathaniel and be impressed by Adelle Waldman’s ability to render his inner life so convincingly.  I had to admit, once I’d put it down, that I’d really liked this book in spite of myself.

What books did you love this year?  Tell me so I can read them!

A Book Blog For Teachers

Friend and reader Tara Warmerdam just pointed me to her wonderful blog, A Reading Corner for Teachers and Writers. I’m so glad she did: she writes about books in a way that is meant to be helpful to teachers, and it  really is.  Some recent posts discuss

If you are a teacher interested in using books in the classroom – whether you’re a literature teacher or not, and no matter what your grade level – I think you’ll get a lot out of Tara’s blog.  Go check it out!

A Course Plan for Literary Appreciation and Analysis: Blogiversary Post #6

I struggle with conflicting philosophies about my job.  I teach English literature (as well as language and composition) as core curriculum in CEGEP, a transitional/professional college that all Quebec students must attend before moving on to university or to many professions.  My classes are therefore comprised of students of wildly varying levels of ability and interest when it comes to reading literature.

One element of my job is teaching students how to analyze literary texts.  One challenge of my job is that a large number of my students have little experience reading literary texts; a surprising number have never read a novel, for example, that wasn’t assigned to them in school.  This creates two important problems:

  • A student with little practice in reading literature has much more difficulty developing analytical reading and writing skills.
  • A literature class that focuses solely on analysis is unlikely to inspire a student to read more widely, thus perpetuating the problem.

Is it more important for me to teach students literary analysis, even if they’re not ready for it, or to help them discover pleasure in reading that will then lead them to develop basic intuitive skills that will help them analyze?  The latter seems like the obvious answer to me, but I still have a duty to prepare them explicitly for their English Exit Exam, which requires them to analyze a text.  In wrestling with this problem, I developed the course that I outline below.  My original post on this course is the fifth-most-widely-shared post in the history of this blog.


Module 1: Literary Analysis Review

Text: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

In the first part of the course, we all read The Glass Castle and discuss the genre of the personal narrative.  We review elements of narrative (theme, plot, setting, character, imagery/symbolism) and they apply them to the memoir.  We then do a short analytical essay in class based on a choice of unseen texts (I like using the “Lives” section of the New York Times magazine as a source for excellent very short personal narrative texts.)

Module 2: Book Talks

Texts: students have a course pack containing copies of the front cover, the back cover or inside flap, and the first chapter of eight book-length memoirs.  I ask them to browse this pack and then tell me the three books they’d most like to read.  For example, one term, I included the following texts:

I assign one book to each student, taking their preferences into account whenever possible. Each book is therefore read by a group of 4-5 students.  Their major assignment for this module is a “book talk,” in which they must, as a group, present the book to the class and argue that their classmates SHOULD or SHOULD NOT choose this book as their final reading for the course.  Each person is responsible for a 5-7 minute presentation on one of the following topics:

  1. Theme: Identify an important theme in the memoir.  Make sure you state your theme clearly and precisely.  Then give evidence from the memoir to support your theme, WITHOUT GIVING THE WHOLE STORY AWAY.  Why does the theme make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  2. Historical, geographical or social/cultural information: Describe the historical, geographical and social/cultural setting of the book (where, when, and in what social context it happens).  Make sure you make direct connections between the facts you provide and the events of the book. Why does the setting of the memoir make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  3. Another element of the narrative: You may wish to discuss the author’s use of another literary element such as conflict, characterization or imagery, and how it helps us understand and appreciate the story. Why does the author’s use of this element make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  4. Personal connection: Choose a scene, character, event or idea in the memoir that you found particularly interesting and discuss why you related to it.  Tell us about how this aspect of the book reflected events in your life, and why other people in the class might relate to it too.  Make sure you are comfortable discussing this personal connection, and consider whether your audience will be comfortable hearing about it.  Why do the personal connections we might make with this story make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  5. Other important information you learned: Tell the class about an important topic you learned about from reading this book. Why does learning about this topic make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  6. Difficulty: Tell the class about a challenge you had, and that they might have, in reading this book.  Is it worthwhile for readers to take on this challenge and read all the way to the end?
  7. What you loved: Tell the class about something else you loved about this book.  Be detailed, but again, don’t give everything away.  Why does this aspect of the book make/not make the book a worthwhile read?

At the end of each week, students must write a Book Talk Report about one of the two books presented that week. They explain what they learned about the book from the excerpt in their course pack and from the Book Talk.  They must identify at least one important similarity between the book they saw presented and the book they are reading with their group. Will they consider choosing the book they saw presented as their third course reading?

Module 3: Comparison

Text: each student chooses another book from the list above.

Students must write an essay comparing the memoir they presented in their Book Talk to the memoir they have chosen for their third reading.  In this module, we also look at examples of personal narrative in film (for example, Persepolis or Stories We Tell) and in radio/TV (This American Life).

Summer Book Club Final Week: The Middlesteins

This will be the final installment of this year’s Summer Book Club!  I’ve enjoyed this project a lot – both the incentive it gave me to read a lot of books, and the comments from all of you about what you’ve been reading. My intention is to hold a blog book club again next summer.  Thanks for your participation!

I hope you will continue to follow Classroom as Microcosm throughout the year.  Starting tomorrow, in celebration of the blog’s upcoming SEVEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY (!!!), I will be re-publishing, with commentary, the blog’s top ten shared posts.  These are the posts that readers have liked (or, in some cases, hated) enough to pass on to their friends, family and colleagues.  Tomorrow, look for a reprise of a post that addresses a question on many teachers’ minds as summer vacation draws to a close: what if one of my classes is really, really bad?

Today, summer book club guidelines still apply: if you’ve read the books I’m reading, please tell us what you think, either here in the comments, or with a link to your own blog.  If not, please tell us what you’ve been reading this week.


middlesteinsIn the opening chapter of Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, we meet five-year-old Edie and her mother.  They are on the four flights of stairs leading to their apartment, and Edie doesn’t want to walk any more; she wants to be carried.  Her mother’s arms are full of big grocery bags, and Edie is not a small girl; a power struggle ensues.  Within a few pages, we learn a lot about Edie.

She just wanted to be carried.  She wanted to be carried and cuddled and fed salty liverwurst and red onion on warm rye bread.  She wanted to read and talk and laugh and watch television and listen to the radio, and at the end of the day she wanted to be tucked into bed, and kissed good night by one or both of her parents, it did not matter which, for she loved them both equally.  She wanted to watch the world around her go by, and make up stories in her head about everything she saw, and sing all the little songs they taught her in Sunday school, and count as high as she could possibly count, which was currently over one thousand.

A few days ago, I read Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker essay “The Scourge of ‘Relatability'”.  In it, Mead explains that our need for stories that are “relatable” is relatively recent, and that it is stunting us and degrading the experience of reading.  She draws a distinction between “identification” and “relatability” that I like very much.

The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.  But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

When we meet Edie many years later, in the second and third chapters, is she “relatable”? (Note: I hate the word “relatable,” and have told students that it is not a word, that it grammatically indefensible as a word, and that they are forbidden to use it.  The New Yorker has now explained its etymology and grudgingly accepted it, so I guess I must give up this fight.)  For me, Edie is not relatable according to Mead’s definition.  She is not a “flattering confirmation of [my] solipsism”: she weighs over 200 pounds, and will gain more than 100 more before the end of the novel; she is dying of complications from diabetes, and yet continues to ply herself with three-sandwich dinners at McDonald’s and enormous multi-course meals at her favourite Chinese restaurant, despite the gentle protestations of her family.  She is hard-edged and full of denial; she is also very smart, very sure of herself, and not prepared to take anyone else’s crap.  Everyone around her is out of their minds with worry about her, and she absolutely refuses to change.

It’s hard to relate to someone who is loved and cared for yet defiantly killing herself, but I identified with many things about Edie; anyone who has struggled with emotional eating, or any other bad but delicious habit, probably will too.  There is a beautiful exchange with her little son and daughter that shows us how our human minds can move from resentment to the grip of love to self-hatred to optimism in the space of seconds:

in theory, she should be happy to spend time with her children, but sometimes she found them a little dull.  Playing with them was boring, and it wasn’t even their fault.  It was just the notion of playing itself….[Benny] pulled from his pocket a string of orange and pink beads on a long, narrow rubber thread and held it up in the air.  “It’s for you.”  He smiled – oh, he beamed! The beam that could break your heart.

I’m a shit, thought Edie.

“It is the most beautiful necklace I have ever seen in my entire life,” she said.  She took it from his tiny hand and then tied it around her neck.

“You look pretty,” he said.

She did not look pretty, she thought.  She did not believe she had looked pretty in a long time.  Her business clothes no longer fit her right, not her jackets, not her shirts…but she could not bring herself to buy a new wardrobe.  Maybe if she gave Weight Watchers a shot this time.  There was always the vague promise of that lingering in her future.

That last paragraph is more or less the exact monologue that went through my mind about half an hour before I read it, as I was standing in my closet wondering if I’m going to have to buy myself more new pants than I can afford before school starts, or can tough it out in the stuff I bought myself last year at least until winter comes and I have to start packing long johns under things.  So yes, there’s a certain amount of “relatability” here, but it’s not the type that makes you feel good about yourself.  It’s the type that makes you feel real about yourself.  Uncomfortably, importantly real.

What’s more, there are plenty of other characters to identify with, whether we relate to them or not.  It may be difficult to forgive Richard, Edie’s husband, for abandoning her, but it isn’t difficult to identify with the suffering and helplessness he feels in the face of her abuse and her disorder.  Her daughter-in-law Rachelle may be an uptight little control freak, but she also really wants to do something for Edie, to fix this situation before Edie destroys herself.  The bratty granddaughter, the angry daughter, the son who’s too high to do anything but ask his wife to deal – we may not really “relate” to anyone, because their foibles are so prominently displayed that it’s hard not to judge them and get pissed off with them and wish we could smack them around the head a little until they wise up.

But I didn’t meet a single person in this novel – including the elderly Chinese restaurant owner who falls in love with Edie, and the gay dance teacher whose drawer full of bar mitzvah “save the date” gift magnets signals that everyone wants to be his friend but he has better things to do – that I couldn’t identify with in some way.  Every character is totally infuriating and totally sympathetic.

It’s quite a feat, and it’s a wonderful book.  I’d read it if I were you.


Here are some books that I’m working on but won’t get a chance to write about, unless I love them enough to put them in my Top Ten Books list at the end of the year.  So far, they’re all really good!

  • Katrina Onstad: Everybody Has Everything. After a car crash, Ana and James find themselves guardians of a little boy, perhaps permanently.  They quickly learn a lot about themselves and their relationship.  I’m about halfway through this and loving it.
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Death in the Family (Book One of the My Struggle series).  Any serious reader living today has to at least attempt this six-volume autobiographical “novel” series.  So far, it’s slow and demands a lot of concentration, but is also stunning.  I’m only a few pages in; it’s my bedside book, and I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading before sleep.  I suspect it will be my subway reading once school starts.
  • Jeff Lemire: Essex County.  This collection of three graphic novels was, like Asterios Polyp, recommended by commenter Kathleen.  It is wonderful, but melancholy; I’m reading it in short instalments.
  • Adelle Waldman: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.  I started this book while I was in the hospital, in the hours before surgery (afterwards, I was able to do nothing but fall asleep over and over while listening to podcasts.)  I have read about 100 pages.  It is an easy and biting little satire told from the point of view of an incorrigible ladies’ man.  I was enjoying it a lot, but, because I own it, I put it aside when I got home in order to tackle the books that will eventually have to go back to the library.
  • Tin House: The Writer’s Notebook I and II.  I would really like to look back, once the summer is over, and feel good about the amount of fiction writing I got done.  I am finding these two volumes of collected essays on writing craft to be extremely helpful.  If I’m feeling resistant in the morning, I choose an essay that seems to tackle a writing problem I’m having and I read it over my coffee.  If you are a writer who needs some guidance, I’d recommend these books; I ordered them as part of Tin House’s Writer’s Series.


Have you read The Middlesteins, or any of the other books I’m working on?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Thanks again for reading, commenting and following along!  I look forward to dedicating next summer to reading more awesome books and hearing about what you’re reading, too.


Summer Book Club Week 10: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

chastI am by nature a worrier, and one of the things I worry about is what will happen to me as I get old.  I have no children, and no intention of having any; I have a husband, but we’ll be getting old at more or less the same pace, if we’re lucky.  I have good friends, but no one I would expect could look after me if I got seriously ill or had my mobility permanently compromised.  I live in a part of the world where winters are so harsh that even for the able-bodied, getting up and down the street on foot is a major physical challenge for a couple of months of the year.  My financial affairs are only minimally in order; once it’s time for me to receive my small pension, I will not have a lot of stray cash lying around for luxuries like, say, a residence with in-house care.

I have worried a bit less about caring for my parents, as they are both still young and in good health and have partners considerably younger than them, but as the years pass and I see my friends’ parents become infirm, and as my parents themselves bring up things like funeral costs and end-of-life decisions, I find myself faced more and more with questions about how they will be cared for.  I hope they will live to be very old, but I never thought much about what that would mean until I read Roz Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Chast’s parents have not just her but each other; however, they are in their nineties and are becoming less able to live without constant care.  They have never been easy or reasonable people, and as they age, and as she needs to be more responsible for them, she finds herself under almost unbearable strain.  On top of the medical emergencies and the deterioration of their mental capacities, the biggest burden is financial.  Her parents have considerable savings and she earns a comfortable living as a long-time New Yorker cartoonist, but she is still bowled over by the costs that fall on them: for example, a place in an assisted living facility starts at $7500 a month, and once they require more regular care, the price skyrockets.

Not only does she have to worry about these things, she has to wrestle with her own guilt over her inability to be an angel.  Chast sincerely wants to be the best daughter she can, but finds herself panic-stricken and resentful; time and again she steps up to the plate only to turn tail and flee back to the relative calm of her home and family, hoping that everything will be ok while she hides from the chaos. Part of this is the simple weight of the responsibilities, but part is also due to her parents themselves, especially her mother, with whom she has always had a troubled relationship.  And the major complication is that Chast has tried throughout her adult life to have conversations with her parents about death and money, and they have always brushed her off with the rejoinder of the title; now, when the decisions really do need to be made, they are not being any more cooperative.

While never undercutting the painful realities of this story, Chast makes them funny.  Difficult people make wonderful characters, and her parents are a handful.  To illustrate their preposterous frugality (for which she is now grateful), Chast relates an incident in a department store in which her mother creates elaborate plans to buy reduced-price pantyhose in bulk; none are her size, and the colours are ridiculous, but she could sew small ones together, or cut up big ones to make smaller pairs, and dye them.  Or she could make a vest for her husband out of them.  None of her daughter’s sane arguments will dissuade her.  The scene captures so much about their relationship and about her mother that it’s heartbreaking, but it is also fall-off-the-couch hilarious.  The book is like this from one end to the other: sobering, eviscerating, and hugely entertaining.

My strongest response at the end of this book was gratitude: I live in a country with universal paid health care, my parents are not insane, and if I’m lucky, the struggles Chast illustrates here are some years away.  The greatest gift this book gives, however, is a clear-eyed and searingly honest look at a trauma most of us will have to go through.  The fact that Chast’s humour extends not only to her parents and to the unimaginable situation they find themselves in, but also to herself, makes this one of the best graphic memoirs I’ve ever read.


Also read this week: The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff.  Ancient Chinese tradition dictates that when Deshi’s brother dies, he needs a corpse bride to accompany him into the afterlife.  Deshi is tasked with finding one.  Thus begins this beautifully illustrated and haunting graphic novel.  Deshi sets off across the countryside, but soon finds that his assignment is a difficult one, and it is made no easier by the appearance of Lily, who would be a perfect corpse-bride candidate if only she were dead.  The story is great; the visuals are stunning.

Abandoned this week:

  • Megan Abbott’s The Fever.  I was laid up for most of this past week recovering from a medical intervention on my uterus.  Despite this, I did not feel averse to reading a novel about a mysterious ailment targeting sexually blossoming young women.  I did, however, feel averse to reading a novel with no sense of humour.  Under different circumstances, I might have enjoyed this book.
  • Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. One complaint that workshoppers have often made about early drafts of my fiction is that these drafts contain long swaths of uninterrupted dialogue that seem mechanical in their desire to advance the plot and characters.  Joel Dicker also has this problem.  It does not seem that he had helpful workshopppers, or editors, to aid him in remedying it.  I was intrigued by the premise: a bestselling author crippled by writer’s block is called upon to investigate, and then write about, his mentor’s implication in the death of a teenage girl over thirty years ago.  I forgave the bald dialogue and ascetic but not very elegant prose for 99 pages, reminding myself all the while that this book is a translation from the French and therefore deserves my indulgence where the language is concerned.  In the end, the prospect of 539 more pages of the same defeated me.

Have you read Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, or any of the other books I attempted this week?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?


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