Writers as readers

Writers love to read. It was my turn to post something on the 11th Floor Writers‘ blog so I asked the members what they were reading. They had a lot to share. Please click here to continue.

Stories for writers

oatesI’ve had to read many interesting stories since enrolling in a fiction class as part of my MFA studies. I wanted to pass along some of the titles.

The following stories are housed in Joyce Carol Oates’ book entitled Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers. You can read them online by clicking on the story titles.

“Aren’t You Happy For Me?” by Richard Bausch

An excellent example of how a story can be constructed using mainly dialogue. How would you react if your 22-year-old daughter phoned one day and said that she was engaged to a 63-year-old man?

“That Evening Sun” by William Faulkner

Written in 1931, this is a dark and disturbing story about a white family’s reaction to the fears of their black servant, Nancy.

“In the American Society” by Gish Jen

Told from the point of view of a Chinese-American girl, this story looks at a family’s attempt to assimilate into American culture and sheds light on the immigrant experience.

“Father’s Last Escape” by Bruno Schulz

If you’re a fan of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you’ll appreciate this story. In this story, the father turns into a crab which the mother later cooks for dinner.

“Borges and I” by Jorge Luis Borges

A short autobiographical work that looks at the private versus the personal self. It ends with the line, “I do not know which of us has written this page.”

Two books

I have a tendency of reading more than one book at a time. Right now, Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life is sitting on my nightstand. It’s what I’m reading at home. Judy Fong Bates’ Midnight at the Dragon Café is in my bag. It gets read everywhere else, especially in my car as I wait for my daughter during her piano lessons and band practice.

A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee

A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee

Lee, a Korean-American writer, immigrated to the States in 1965. A Gesture Life weaves some heavy issues into the storytelling, including the treatment of Korean comfort women by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II – something the protagonist witnessed during his years of military service. Needless to say, it has a profound effect on him that lasts a lifetime.

Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates

Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates

Fong-Bates is a Chinese-Canadian writer. I’m only a couple of chapters into Midnight at the Dragon Café, which was recommended to me by a friend. The book was the 2011 One Book Community Read for the city of Toronto.

The boy ate an apple

appleOne of my goals this year was to read books by writers of Asian heritage, or to read more stories with protagonists of diverse backgrounds. I regret that growing up and all through these years, I haven’t made it a priority to expose myself to stories told in multicultural voices.

Through high school, university, and college curriculums, I have been exposed to a wealth of brilliant writers, from Chaucer to Hemingway, and many Canadian writers in between. I didn’t even stop to consider that all the stories I read were told from a Western perspective. This has had an interesting impact on me as a reader and now as a writer. I assume every character I read about is white unless told otherwise. I’m not alone. When I wrote ‘The boy ate an apple’ on the chalkboard and asked a classroom full of students, “What ethnicity was that boy?” All of them, even the black and Asian students responded, “white”.

As Canadian educators, writers, and readers, we need to do a better job of promoting diverse voices and experiences. It is 2013, yet the reading lists for Independent Study Projects in senior English classes haven’t changed much since the 80s when I was in high school. To throw in the odd book by a black or Asian writer to “modernize and update” the list isn’t enough.

 

Recommended Read:

Requiem by Frances Itani

Requiem by Frances Itani

I recently finished Frances Itani’s Requiem, a story about Bin, a Japanese Canadian struggling with loss on many levels. Although set in 1997, the story takes readers back to 1942, a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Twenty-two thousand Japanese Canadians in British Columbia were interned, in what is one of Canada’s darkest periods in history.

My first e-reader (sigh)

koboWhen I was asked if I wanted an e-reader for Christmas, my answer was a flat out, “no”.  I love the texture of paper pages, the smell of new books and the worn-out feel of second-hand books. I also love walking into bookstores and being surrounded by books of all sizes, shapes, and colours.

But when the second book that I really wanted to read was only available in e-book format, I thought maybe it was time to at least be open to the possibility of an e-reader.

As soon as I walked into my local Chapters bookstore, I was greeted by a friendly Kobo salesperson who happily walked me through his display.

“This is the one I own,” he said, and passed me a Kobo Glo.

It didn’t feel so bad in my hands, especially when it was put into a case that looked like a book cover.  

I wasn’t entirely sure if it was a good or bad thing that the reader could customize the font size, justification, margins, and even the line spacing. I knew editors who laboured and agonized over such decisions. The fact that any reader could now arbitrarily change everything seemed somehow wrong.

I love the built-in dictionary though. By pressing any word, I instantly get its meaning. As well, the ability to highlight passages and make notes about them is very cool.

The Kobo Glo also has a built-in light which I’m thinking will be great for reading in my car when I’m waiting for my daughter in the parking lot of her music school.

Still not sure where I stand in the e-book vs traditional book debate. Will find out soon though. I’ve downloaded a few books including The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy which was recommended to me by Donleavy’s grandnephew, and hard to find in print version in Toronto.

Memorable characters 2

charactersI love books where I feel connected with the main character, or when the character is someone whom I admire and want to root for. I recently saw Les Miserables again. Jean Valjean is an example of a character I both admire and feel tremendous sympathy for – a character almost impossible for me to forget.

There are several books and online resources that offer great advice, tips, and suggestions on how to create complex and compelling characters. One book title I’d like to pass along is Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters. It’s definitely worth checking out.  Schmidt looks at several archetypes, both heroic and villainous, to explore character traits and behaviours. Her examples of memorable characters from books, movies, and T.V. are especially helpful in shaping our understanding of classic archetypes.

Also worth checking out:

Memorable characters

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877)

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877)

“It’s told from the point of view of a horse,” my daughter, Claire, told me when she started reading Black Beauty. “I don’t know if I want to read it.” She finished the book today, and concluded that it was a great read, and Black Beauty was a character she wouldn’t ever forget.

When Claire asked me to name some memorable characters from books I had read, the first few names that came to mind were:

Nomi Nickel, A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (Canadian)
Sixteen-year old Nomi, who lives in a Mennonite community, is abandoned by both her mother and sister. She asks a question that continues to haunt me: “Is it wrong to trust in a beautiful lie if it helps you get through life?”

Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
As a kid, I had a crush on Atticus, and wondered how many fathers were like him in real life. He was so wise and had the right things to say about everything that mattered: “You never really know a man till you walk a mile in his shoes.”

Dunstan Ramsay, Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (Canadian)
I read this book in grade 12 English class. Dunstan’s involvement with Mary Dempster, a woman he spends his life trying to make a “saint,” is a result of his deep rooted childhood guilt: “I feared to go to sleep and prayed till I sweated that God would forgive me for my mountainous crime… I was alone with my guilt, and it tortured me.”

Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables by L.L. Montgomery (Canadian)
I remember wondering if I should add an “e” to the end of my name after reading Anne say, “A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished.”

Iago, Othello by William Shakespeare
I’m wowed by his evil brilliance as much as I fear it. I still get chills reading, “I am not who I am.”