Summer Reading List – Week of May 30th

Summer Reading List – Week of May 30th

I have an extra day off this week, given that it’s Memorial Day weekend, and with the craziness of my brother’s graduation dying down (even though I miss the celebrations and all the family that was in town), I’m finally able to read read read! Now, granted, B and I did go canoeing on Black Creek in Mississippi yesterday, but I think that actually made me sore enough to want to stay on the sofa with a book all day.

Bread & Butter by Michelle Wildgen

I picked up this novel, about three brothers who operate two different restaurants in a small Pennsylvania town, because I am lucky enough to have its author be my mentor at the upcoming Tin House workshop this summer. I wanted to get to know her writing style to better understand her perspective on my work. Other than leaving me hungry, this novel is definitely touching on some great insider-knowledge about working in food service. From Leo’s point of view, the reader gets this: “He sometimes wondered if any of [the staff] were worth the trouble. That was one thing Harry would get a taste of: the enduring, Sisyphean struggle, on any given day, not to fire your entire staff,” (135). Having managed before, I totally loved this line and related to the feeling!

I saw myself in another sentence, which describes one of the kitchen employees in the restaurant: “Oh, Lionel…he was one of those tortured souls who stumbles through the world but fries a great eggplant,” (130). I mean! I felt like that could have been me, only replace “fries a great eggplant” with “makes a stellar cappuccino” or “never leaves the inside of the cannoli shell empty.”

Loving it so far, super-enthralled, hungry all the time. Hopefully will finish this week and get into her other novel, You’re Not You, this weekend.

You Came Back by Christopher Coake

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon Coake but the novel has similar themes to the one I’m working on, most notably the notion of finding a lost family member. I’m interested to see how another author deals with a potentially maudlin and sentimental topic while keeping the reader interested and having the feels.

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

I am definitely reading this for the parallels to my novel, and because Dessen is a well-known, well-respected YA author. I didn’t know much about the genre before I started writing it, so reading this novel will hopefully teach me something about how to create the right tone and story for a YA audience.

Also on my radar:

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler – I lucked out and happened to notice Friday that she was in town giving a reading at Octavia Books so I got to hear a bit of the book and am so looking forward to reading.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans – I don’t know how I’ve managed to go so long without reading her.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane – The NYT review of her short story collection pointed out all the craft that I could potentially learn from this writer I’d never heard of. I’ll start with her novel then move onto the collection, The High Places.

Pearls of Wisdom

Pearls of Wisdom

I definitely, unabashedly, troll book reviews, to find new books and authors that might interest me, but also to keep an eye out for agents I may eventually query if my manuscript is ever ready, magazines I may want to submit to if I ever have a final short story draft, or quirky ideas for the stories that stay in drafts 1-6. Sometimes, reviews are just the springboard into a google-session about an author which can feel a little bit like my other internet guilty pleasure (People Star Tracks, I am indeed looking at you). This review, of Fiona McFarlane‘s short story collection, The High Places, did double duty, as most fiction-related words should. It both introduced me to McFarlane, whose novel is now on my to-read list, and taught me something about craft that I hadn’t ever considered before.

I’m heading into the third year of an MFA program and have completed 4 workshops at this point. Our program director, who led two of the four, gives awards at the end of each semester for categories as varied Best Plot, Person Who Works Harder Than You and Best Written Critique Writer. Well, two years in a row, I won “Most Ill-Conceived Image or Metaphor.” The first winner came from a coming-of-age tale about a girl whose friends pressure her into taking sexy-photos to sext to a boy she likes. The metaphor/image was: “She had to tuck her breasts into the cups, and even with the tucking, they didn’t quite fit. The sports bra had always held them close and tight to her chest. In this new bra, they floated up and away from her, almost flapping like wings.” I can quote it exactly because, well, I put it in writing.

The second winner, from a story about a rich white woman who goes to a poor Caribbean island to vacation, was this: “This coconut smelled rancid, like it had been slathered onto a radio alarm clock and put into an oven to bake.”

On their own, they’re fine metaphors, fine images, I guess. Although the real problem with them is that they don’t do anything in the story. And to hid that fact, I just amped up the craziness of the description. I didn’t quite get it, even as I won that second award. If I wasn’t supposed to have amped up images in my metaphors, what exactly were my metaphors supposed to do? I wish I could say that I figured it out, but even though I’m 75% done with my MFA, I have to admit that I didn’t.

Luckily, in his review of McFarlane’s collection, Christopher Benfey did figure it out, and then he was nice enough to explain it to me.

He writes:

“While lesser writers use similes to render descriptions more vivid, McFarlane’s heighten aspects of her characters and advance her plots.” Yes, he is describing me here, but maybe not for long? His explanation delves into McFarlane’s writing:

“When the marine biologist compares his diaphanous squid to “my mother’s underwear soaking in a holiday basin,” we get a sense of both his deep attachment to the squid and his stunted sexuality. When the sheep farmer likens his wife’s body to “the thin run of a creek in the bed, a low creek that puts out the small noises of a comfort it can’t deliver,” we know the drought has extended from the parched fields to his own bedroom. In a clever story called “Exotic Animal Medicine,” a veterinarian is called from her impromptu wedding to place an emergency catheter in a cat. When she drives “as if she were landing an enormous plane full of porcelain children on a mountaintop,” we can tell what a careful surgeon she is, even as we surmise that there will be some breakage before the story is over.”

Oh, so that’s what metaphors are supposed to do. So images and metaphors and characters and plots, they’re all connected. Reading this review was seriously a D’oh moment for me. I’m currently revising stories for my thesis and am incorporating this wisdom ruthlessly.