Back at the end of May, I posted a list of new books out or soon to come as a kind of summer reading list. But there’s plenty more where that came from. Just today I realized I was entering that delicious part of summer where I am physically stacking up on my nightstand the books I plan to read over the next few months. (Current book: Wildwood, by Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy; beneath that book, Suzanne Collins’s Catching Fire and Alexis Smith’s much-lauded Glaciers.)
Other books in my queue: Charity Seraphina Fields’s Battle Against Infinity, some local history books and nature books about Portland and the surrounding area, and, because I’m crazy, maybe it’s time I begin the Song of Ice and Fire series. (That’s a big maybe, because summer is short.) Also, some manuscripts some writer friends have sent me!
The other day, I spotted an article on Flavorwire about “The 50 Books Everyone Needs to Read, 1963-2013.” One of the most interesting things about the post is that it’s not a “greatest 50 books ever” list — instead, they pick just one book per year for each of the last 50 years. Of course, there’s a lot to argue about in such a list (Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic, sure, but is it really better than Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian from the same year? No, it is not). But kudos to the compilers for including other notables from each year, so those of us who would pick Cormac McCarthy every year he wrote a book still have options. And there’s plenty to agree with on the list, too, most notably the 2012 selection of Chris Ware’s genius Building Stories (which I’m teaching in the fall at Pacific Northwest College of Art as part of my course of the story cycle). Also a great addition to the list: the inclusion of my fellow Oregonian Cheryl Strayed and her Oregon Book Award Reader’s Choice-winning memoir Wild.
Also this week on Flavorwire, small-press superhero Matt Bell lists his favorite novels with “strange families,” in honor of Bell’s own strange-family novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods. It’s a great list, full of lesser-known gems — kudos to Bell for not diving down the rabbit hole of literatures great “strange families” and sticking to newer, smaller works. I mean, hell, for a list as short as eight, you couldn’t even include all of Faulkner (the Snopeses? the Bundrens? the Compsons? And those are just the biggies!).
The two “big names” on Bell’s list are CS Lewis’s Narnia kids and the father-son duo in McCarthy’s The Road, both of which are a smart additions: With the Narnia kids, Bell notes Lewis’s distinctive take on the “kid protagonists have to be orphans” trope (if you didn’t know already, the kids get sent to the countryside and consequently into the wardrobe, where they meet the titular Lion and Witch, as evacuees from London during WWII). “Susan leaves the story by a different method than the other Pevensie children,” Bell notes toward the end, “‘orphaned’ already once by her parents for being too young to stay in London during the war, and then again, by her siblings, for being too grown up to stay in Narnia.” That’s some smart reading!
As for The Road, Bell is highlighting what might be the greatest novel ever written about the father-son relationship, even if it is set in the worst situation imaginable. “Is there anything more heartbreaking than a father who would do anything for his child, in a world where nothing will ever be sufficient?” Bell asks. If there is, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to read it. Yet, for me, the book is profoundly uplifting — at least by McCarthy’s standards — because of that relationship. When I was tutoring a high schooler in this novel last year, the kid flat fell in love with the book (and with Cormac McCarthy in general), and the thing he kept coming back to wasn’t the violence or the grim prophecy or the debauchery or the destitution or the hopelessness. The thing this kid loved the most about the book was how important it was for the father and the son to keep carrying the fire. (For a beautiful account of a father reading this novel while his infant son slept on his chest, see my friend Michael Levan’s blog post from a few years ago.)
This all got me thinking about how I treat family in my own work, whether it’s the saga of a deported immigrant mother and her confused, Anglicized son (seen here, here, and in the forthcoming “Have Love, Will Hurt”), or the widowed young girl and her mother-in-law trying desperately to survive in the Louisiana bayou 150 years ago (seen here and here), or the married couple who struggle with lost children and lost loves (seen here and here), or the mother trying to explain war to her young son in the conspicuous absence of his soldier father (seen here).
I don’t have any critique to offer about my own work. I’ll leave that to the readers. But I realize how often I do write about family. I try in my fiction to wrestle with the idea of home — specifically with that weird conflict of feeling tied to a place and wanting to leave it at the same time — but it makes sense that this focus would lend itself pretty readily to family as a placeholder for home (or vice-versa), and I’m curious now what I might make of all that in retrospect.
Finally, I mentioned in my last “summer reading” post that my friend Dena Rash Guzman would be publishing her first book of poetry soon. Well, it’s out now and available for order. Check out the post at her publisher’s site, where you’ll also see information about a release party and reading in Portland. Bonus news: I’ll be reading there, too, gang, as will Passenger Side Books authors Ryan Werner and Justin Lawrence Daughterty, who are driving over band-in-a-van style on their own book tour. We’ll all be joining a gaggle of other rad authors, poets, and creative weirdos for quick and brilliant little bursts of performance. If you’re in the Portland area July 9, drop me a line and I’ll feed you the details.