Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns), Mindy Kaling


Kaling says something quite valuable about the creative process and taking control: when she and her friend Brenda are working on Matt & Ben, which eventually became a breakout hit at the Fringe Festival, they let it grow organically out of their own bits. "Bits are essentially 'nonsense time,'" she writes, "or, to describe it more pejoratively, 'fucking around.'" They publicized the play on their own, and they sunk their time and effort into it because it was, at its base, fun. "We had no idea what we were doing, but we had a purpose after two years of living in New York and not having on. Matt & Ben was a respite from helplessness."

It's odd, how just focusing your efforts on something like that can grow into such a big thing. A friend and I recently collaborated to put together a literary salon, and it had much the same effect: we produced a book and got together a group of artists to share something, and even if there was a chance that no one would care or nothing would come of it, it was a great way to spend a few months -- and it forced us, as well as our friends, to hone writing we'd been sitting on for a long time, to take a chance and put our work out into the world.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin


A number of people have told me I should read Ursula K. Le Guin, and so I looked forward to this classic of feminist science fiction. I didn't dislike it, but I did have a hard time getting into it; and for whatever reason, as Ai and Estraven were crossing the Gobrin Ice, I couldn't help but think of Cheryl Strayed and her doomed ice pick on the Pacific Crest Trail (a rather strange free association). Perhaps science fiction will never really be my "thing," but I'm glad I gave it a shot at least.

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter


This story, of lost love and missed chances and lives that turn out pretty good nonetheless, is rather absorbing. The narrative jumps from Italy to Hollywood to Seattle to London, decade to decade, covering a lot of ground, but one passage that I found particularly compelling was an anecdote from a character who, though important to the story, is not a central player. Alvis's passage relates to the sense of futility one sometimes feels as an artist:

[He] went for a walk, looking for the clearing where his old unit had gotten into the firefight. There, he came across a landscape painter doing a sketch of an old barn. But the young man was drawing the barn upside down. Alvis thought maybe there was something wrong with the man, some sort of brain damage, and yet there was a quality to his work that drew Alvis in, a disorientation that seemed familiar.

'The eye sees everything upside down,' the artist explained, 'and then the brain automatically reverses it. I'm just trying to put it back the way the mind sees it.'

Alvis stared into the drawing for a long time. He even thought about buying it, but he realized that if he hung it this way, upside down, people would just turn it over. This, he decided, was also the problem with the book he hoped to write. He could never write a standard war book; what he had to say about the war could only be told upside down, and then people would probably just miss the point and try to turn it right side up again.

Well, yes, I suppose they may -- but what about the one person who marvels at your upended masterpiece? 

The Island of Doctor Moreau, H.G. Wells


An embarrassing confession: when I think of H. G. Wells, I don't immediately think of anything from the books he wrote. I free associate to a few things -- his long relationship with Rebecca West and the son they had together, though he was married to another woman; a book I read earlier this year, The Map of Time (Felix J. Palma), in which Wells is a main character and there's time traveling and people trying to kill Wells and Bram Stoker and other people to alter the ways of the world (a book I did not like overmuch); and one very special episode of The Simpsons. 

Yes, that's right: before now, the closest read of an H.G. Wells tale I've had was through the filter of a cartoon's Halloween special. "The Island of Doctor Hibbert" aired in season 14 (2002); the episode, it turns out, takes a rather cheerier view of Wells's tale, with Springfield residents happily becoming, for instance, walrus-human hybrids. Although rather violent, Wells's book is at once a gripping adventure and a cautionary tale for those seeking to "civilize" nature. 

Wild, Cheryl Strayed


I read parts of Wild sitting in the passenger seat of my mom's car, driving back to Oregon from a visit to see her parents in the Sierra Nevada. We took I-5 and reminisced about road trips when I was a girl, getting lost trying to find a place to stop for a picnic at Castle Crags. The drive took longer than I thought it would, and I grew impatient to get back to Portland. Still, as we passed signs for the Pacific Crest Trail, I couldn't help but think that perhaps slowing down, not speeding up, would be a wise course; Strayed certainly benefited from her months of contemplation with Monster, a few good books, and the West's wilds spread before her.

On books

I've been keeping, for the past year and a half, a rather obsessive list of books I've read. Here, I'm going to try and write scatter-shot notes on these books as I finish them, in the interest of forcing myself to reflect a little more deeply on things.