October Recommended Reading List

On Writing Recommended Reading

As I expected, October turned out to be a difficult time for my leisure reading. (And for my TV viewing—my DVR started randomly deleting things [even the items I had saved] because it ran out of space. Fortunately, everything is rerun on some sister station these days, and I didn’t lose much.)

I did read a lot: The students figure they turned in cumulatively 400,000 words in 2 weeks. I read each word. Some of those stories will see print, and I’m make note of them when they do. Because honestly, some of the best reading I did this month came from the students, especially their novelettes written midway through the workshop. There wasn’t a dud in the bunch—all 16, good. A few of them are award quality. (And for those of you counting, that’s at least 16,000 words of my reading right there.)

What I did read outside of the workshop came in stolen moments—an article here, a short story there. Fortunately, most of my stolen readings were excellent as well. Here are the things I liked this month that have actually seen print:

October, 2008

Eggers, Dave, “The Future of Words,” Esquire, October, 2008. A brilliant essay on the future of reading, using facts, figures, and just good old fashioned logic. I also reference this piece in my Dated Essay of the Month for October, so check that out as well. I found Eggers essay inspiring, marvelous, and refreshing. It’s very short, so follow the link now and read it. You’ll be happy that you did.

Oates, Joyce Carol, “Hi Howya Doin,” Ploughshares, Spring 2007. Some of the Master Class students pointed me to this story while we were discussing all the tools a writer has at her disposal. This Oates story is excellent—about 1700 words with a nifty little twist at the end. But it wouldn’t work if she had written it in a conventional style. The entire piece is one sentence—and it has multiple points of view. Now I know, that sounds dull, but it isn’t. It’s the story of someone running (jogging), with the promise of a police report at the end, and somehow she manages to mimick the act of running on a trail with lots of other runners nearby. The promise of the police report adds tension.

The story is phenomenal. I’ve been rereading it since the students pointed it out to me, trying to figure out how it works. (That’s the mode I get into when I teach.) The punctuation is simple; I get what she’s doing. The points of view, on the other hand, will require more study. They’re seamless.

Of course, most of you reading this could care less about technique. You want to know if it’s a good story. And it is. It’s amazing. But then, so is Oates.

Russo, Richard, Bridge of Sighs, Vintage, 2007. When I chose Richard Russo’s newest, Bridge of Sighs, to read during the Master Class, I did so because I knew that Russo’s spectacular writing would hold me through my exhaustion and the extremely critical mood that the Master Class always forces me into.

The Master Class requires me to think about fiction from a craft perspective, analyzing all aspects of it. That attitude creeps into my leisure reading, making it hard for me to read writers whose skills might be perfect for the story they’re telling, but might lack certain refinements—the very things I’m focussing on during the teaching.

Few writers can stand up to such scrutiny. The storytellers, who focus on plot, often have thin characterization or nonexistent setting. The beautiful writers, who focus on description and language, usually lack plot. I read primarily for character, setting, and plot, and when I’m in a highly critical mode, a writer who misses one of the three loses me immediately.

This is not the writer’s fault. It’s mine, and I know it. So I chose Richard Russo, whose plots are subtle and refined, whose characterization is so superb that I feel like I’ve met everyone he describes, and whose settings are so well realized that they become another character and are often, as in Empire Falls, the point of the story itself.

Bridge of Sighs met all of my expectations of Russo’s work and more. He held my attention, even when I only had time to read 5 pages in an evening, sinking me back into the story of Thomasville, Bobby Noonan, Lucy (Louis C. Lynch, he of the unfortunately nickname), Lucy’s wife Sarah, their parents, children, and friends.

The story is a generational saga, told mostly through the eyes of Lucy Lynch and Bobby Noonan, from the earliest memories of childhood through their sixtieth birthday (both men were born in the same year). Noonan fled Thomasville as a teenager; Lucy never left. But the town, its people, and its strengths influence both of them, and inform the entire novel.

To tell more of the plot is to ruin the book. The plot doesn’t come togheter until the very last line, although the read is compelling. But what held me wasn’t so much “what happens next?” as “how are these people, and this town, going to make it through this incident, that incident, and this crisis?”

A beautiful work, strong and lyrical. One that I will remember for a very, very long time.

Shepard, Lucius, “A Spanish Lesson,” The Best of Lucius Shepard, Subterranean Press, 2008. Even though Lucius is one of my all-time favorite short story writers, I somehow managed to miss quite a few of the stories collected in his Best of. “A Spanish Lesson” is one of them. I read it the night before the Master Class began, nearly a month ago as I write this, and I can still recall the story and its details vividly. A story that reads as if it’s semi-autobiographical (the POV character’s name is Lucius) gains a lot of power from that hint of realism. Interesting characters, unique situation. Exactly what I expect from a Lucius Shepard story.