I am an avid reader. I have been all my life. It is possible that I ventured down the rabbit hole lined with words and the smell of book paper to get away from my own reality when it was at its worst. In my advancing years, I have been more selective about what I read…possibly less adventurous the more I learn about the world. In essence, I choose my escape destination wisely.
I remember as a young girl falling in love with the pioneer west of the “Little House on the Prairie” book series which developed into a grown up love for writers like Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, and Wallace Stegner. These are some of my dearest friends in my heart; they are the ones I turn to when I have read too many books filled with shit writing.
Over the last year, due to a lot of family loss, I haven’t been reading. Death would seem like the best vehicle to get lost in another person’s environment, to imagine my grief away, but I spent a long year looking it in the face until I was finally done with it. When I re-emerged from this reading coma I decided to stray from the comfort zone.
I have been working on reading all the Pulitzer Prize novels ever written so I grabbed Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge”. This was well worthy of the golden seal placed on it by the fine folks at the Pulitzer panel. It is a rich set of short stories that are all interlaced in some way by the main character, Olive Kitteridge. She isn’t a likeable woman. In fact, she gets under your skin as a mean, bossy, know-it-all. Each story is about someone in the small town of Crosby, Maine. Each character has, in some way, had Olive in their lives. By the end of the book, you get to love her. You let yourself do that, because under that exterior you realize she is a woman, not unlike any other woman, who has lived a life for others. She is real. She is sad. She is human. I left this book with a refreshed appreciation for new writers.
Randomly from my book shelf I chose my next set of pages to turn. (I must note that sometimes I buy books by their cover and some because I might have heard the author’s name before, but may know nothing about them.) I chose the book “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson. This book was written in the early 1900’s and I am not opposed to crusty old writers. I often like that stately and Victorian feel they can bring to a book, but this one had me falling asleep mid-page in the afternoon.
As I started reading “Winesburg, Ohio” I realized that it was set up much like “Olive Kitteridge” had been. It was again a series of short stories. I laughed a little that I was able to pick a book that written in a similar style from the 300 books I have lying around the house. I ventured forth with it and high hopes it would be as enjoyable as the first book. It wasn’t. In 1917, I don’t think the transition was as smooth and effortless as it was in 2008, but there have been a lot of years in between to work on the process. Sherwood Anderson’s book was set more around the town Winesburg, Ohio rather than the people. He was attempting to build a collected vision about the small town by giving us the lives of the towns people and how they moved around in the sleepy community. It wasn’t successful. I labored through the first 60 pages and just couldn’t continue. It pained me to put the book down, because normally I am a committed reader, but this book made me want to stop reading again. I moved on.
Again, I chose a book at random (sort of) and picked up Dorothy Allison’s “Trash”. I remember many years ago reading her book “Bastard Out of Carolina” and enjoying it. I remember it wasn’t mind bending reading and seeing as I had just melted a portion of my frontal lobe with the last one, I thought I would go light. Huh.
“Trash” ended up being ANOTHER series of short stories with a similar theme. Now at this point, I was laughing at myself. Sometimes my ability to get stuck on a theme is uncanny. Dorothy Allison’s book “Trash” ,at first read, was supposed to be a series of short stories about a girl who grew up in the white trash south, hence the title. The first two stories and the last two stories were insanely phenomenal. They brought me to tears they were so touching and real. The middle of the book was disappointing and way off the beaten track of what she started. I felt, to say the least, duped. The middle of the book was all about this character’s lesbian sexual adventures. Now, I don’t care who loves who or what sex you are. I am not taking a swipe at gay literature or its writers, but hell if I don’t feel cheated having read this book. It had such potential.
When I was finished with all three books I sat down and thought about how interesting it had been that I chose them. Internally, I was grateful for the collections of short stories because it gave me the chance to ease back into reading without feeling like an utter failure. Short story collections lend themselves to reading a few and putting the book down. It was perfect. I loved that all the settings were really small towns. This setting has always been one of my favorites as a small town has roots and all of them are tangled up in someone else’s roots and eventually there is upheaval when they are fighting for ground. I love the intimate way a writer can develop characters.
I thought about how interesting it was to look at samples of similar themed writing from 1917, 1988, and 2008. It made me think about whether or not the later writers had learned from the earlier ones. We all know that in art there is rarely an original idea. There are people who can look at existing work and spurn themselves into creating a wild bend on what they have seen. This is the wonder of art and literature. It was interesting for me to realize how hard it is to pull themed writing off and how gratifying it must feel when you can achieve it.
In an interesting side note, after realizing all these things, I remembered that in a way I torture my writers at In Between Altered States because I make them write flash fiction based on a theme. Then I have to mastermind all these different interpretations of the theme into a cohesive “episode”. Sometimes I am more successful than others. I can better appreciate the missteps in two of these books and cherish the fluidity of the other.
Read books. You never know what will happen to you when you do.