For The Love of Words

I spent the last 2 days hanging around writers, booksellers, and publishers.

I think, as humans, one of the very best things we can do for ourselves is find our little group of like-minded weirdos. Everybody is weird (some prefer “unique,” but whatever). Being in a group of similarly weird people makes you feel connected and understood. You don’t have to explain yourself, or search for just the right words to make someone understand your point of view. Your Weirdo Tribe is just going to GET IT.

Me, I walk through the world thinking about words about 85% of the time. See, weird. But I’m a writer and an aspiring bookseller–that’s, like, ALL the words.

But 2 things happened during my sojourn with these bookseller/writer types that gave me that blissful feeling when you see something of yourself in someone else–when the very innermost parts of you feel represented and seen:

#1: One of the presenters from Southern Fried Karma (“a multi-media production company developing projects in music, films and books”–but c’mon, isn’t that just the best name?!?) started talking about the power of books to establish community. Because we know that reading builds empathy. And empathy paves the way for community and connection. The more you read, most often the wider your worldview. The more you see similarities and understand the way other people experience the world, the less strong your impluse to “other” people. The more likely you become to reach out, to seek diverse communities, to support people–even those seemingly unlike yourself.

And that’s precisely what the dude from SFK was expressing when he told the story about white supremacists coming to his small, Georgia town to have a rally–and the black and white communities uniting to keep out the white supremacists, creating a space where hate could not thrive. And as he talked about the power of books to create this kind of empathy, to unite two seemingly disparate communities in rural(ish) Georgia, he began to tear up.

And OH. MY. GOD. Yes.

I tear up when I talk about books all the time. Because they are so powerful. And stories–every story–can change the world (that’s why the tagline for Bookish is “Every Story Matters.”) And hell yes, that’s something to get emotional over.

We need change. Books ARE that change. We just need to get them into the hands of the people and remind them about the magical ability of stories to change lives.

#2: On the Bus Tour of Atlanta Bookstores, I met an author from North Carolina who’s debut novel is coming out this Summer. That’s a BIG DEAL. We chatted about how tough the writing process can be (there are no bon-bons involved. It is NOT, in fact, a cakewalk). And I gave her the brief rundown about the progress on my middle grades novel. Honestly, I’d never talked to someone who was just a short stretch ahead of me on the road to becoming published. Most folks I meet are either established authors… or they are going to write an book someday. But this woman had just emerged from the trenches of rewriting, revising, and editing… and now she had a BOOK that other people were going to READ. I just found it all so hopeful. Like maybe it would happen for me, too.

The next day, the same woman was a presenter at the conference I attended. She spoke about the blurry line between memoir and fiction that is autofiction. And that was amazing in and of itself, because I’ve been thinking about memoir writing, but hesitating because–for real, y’all–once upon a time, I drank so much that my memory isn’t entirely trustworthy. But autofiction opens up a whole new world where things can be true AND not true. Whoa.

But, also, in describing the ways that readers react to autofiction (often by trying to determine how much of the fiction is “true” and how much authority you really have two write about certain themes), she shared part of her story with us. And I swear, it was just like my story. And nothing like my story. And the things she said made me feel so visible, and I thought she was so brave to have shared them, that I ran right up to her afterwards to give her a hug. Because how often does someone tell your story that isn’t your story and remind about so much of what was and what isn’t but what always is?

Rarely. And oh my Lord, is it a gift.

Stories are so much bigger than us. They take on a life of their own. They reach people in ways we can’t begin to fathom. And they do change lives. Hell, they can change the whole world.

(And, yes, I totally cried the whole time I wrote this. Whatever.)

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

Stephen King has been a favorite of mine since I was 12. I was spellbound then, as I am now, by his masterful storytelling (I mean, c’mon, The Shining is second to none). I fell in love with his horror stories, but I’ve come to realize that he can write anything. And that’s real talent.  

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams offers a collection of Stephen King’s short(ish) stories. The bizarrely imaginative plots range from a monster car (which is very different than a monster truck, trust me) to an ill-fated fireworks display. My favorites, though, were about an otherworldly Kindle and a sanity threatening Cookie Jar. Really.  

Each story has a brief intro, where King explains his inspiration for the story (literary or otherwise). I love that these intros acknowledge that other writers have influenced King’s craft over time… and none more so than the ones he really immerses himself in. Which is likely why so much of the creative work I’ve done recently is heavily Stephen Kingesque. He’s the kind of storyteller whose style and way of envisioning the world colors your own reality. Or at least it colors mine.  

I get drawn back to King for the power of his stories but I stay because he’s a magician with words. I didn’t love every story in this collection. But the ones I did love return to my consciousness over and over again. They have staying power. And they are something to aspire to. 

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I pulled this novel out of a stack being cleaned, sorted, and packaged for the bookstore. I try not to do that very often. If I did, we’d be inundated with books  (we already are, truthfully). But I’ve heard about this book since high school, and somehow managed not to have read it yet. So, out it came.

I guess I expected fireworks. The book is pretty famous, after all. But it took me a minute (or a few chapters) to get into it. And then, I was in.

It’s not a page-turning, wait with baited-breath kind of story. It is honest. And uncomfortable. It’s sweet and rough, gut-punching and tender. It’s human. Painfully and beautifully so.

What makes A Tree Grows in Brooklyn so brilliant–and powerful–is the unflinching deconstruction of deeply held notions about poverty, simply by describing daily life for the working poor. Smith constructs a compassionate (but still relatively neutral) narrator to traverse class customs and behaviors, breaking down stereotypes and offering the reader insight.

Francie, the child of an alcoholic father and a work weary mother, feels injustices deeply. She can also get “drunk” on a flower or a perfect night sky. My favorite line in the book is Francie’s: “The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself.”

Yes! I’ve felt this my whole life, but I’ve never known anyone else to give voice to that feeling. Until now. And that might be one of the best gifts of a good book.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Book of Qualities

A sweet friend gifted me this book. Out of the blue. Because he thought I should have it.

The gesture made me a little teary. But, page by page, it meant even more that he’d chosen me for this book. Because it’s lovely. It speaks with such a gentle honesty.

It’s a treasure, this book. I loved it so much that I wanted to draw it out, to savor it bit by bit. So I limited myself to two–maybe three–qualities per day. Right before bed. Reading it was a balm. And it offered me poignant insight that I often dwelled upon as I drifted off to sleep.

Each quality of the human condition–worry, pleasure, competition, forgiveness, intensity  (99 in total)–gets a personality, a style of dress, a mode of moving through the world, an energy, and a smattering of favorite things:

Change wears my sister’s moccasins… He likes to come up quietly and kiss me on the back of my neck when I’m at my drawing table…Change is very musical, but sometimes you must listen for a long time before you hear the pattern in his music.

The “negative” qualities spoke to me the most. I began to understand them differently and to look on them with a new tenderness. After all, they are my teachers; it seems only right to respect them, even if I can’t always welcome them.

I finished the book weeks ago.

It’s still on my nightstand, where I can keep it close.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Parable of the Sower

Holy Hell Fire.

I haven’t read something that shook me to the core like this since I read The Handmaid’s Tale in college. I wish every person over 18 in the United States had to read this novel. Because it’s scary as fuck. And I wish I didn’t believe Octavia Butler had prophesied our future as a country–but it seems more and more plausible by the day.

I picked up the book simply because I was embarrassed to say I hadn’t ready any of Butler’s books. I picked Parable of the Sower for no other reason than the cover made it clear the protagonist would be a young black woman–she kinda looked like she was going to kick some ass.

By the end of the first page, I forgot I was reading a book. No time necessary to settle into the story or to adjust to the narrator/protagonist. There was just the story. And, Good GOD, what a story.

It’s a futuristic, dystopian novel. Don’t expect to be spared blood, gore, or pain. If you are too fragile–or jaded–to be horrified, look somewhere else. But, if you want what feels like an objective view of our future if we don’t halt civil rights infringements, the ever-evolving militarization of our police forces, rampant racism, and escalating climate change–read on.

Do not read this right before bed. And find someone who will listen as you sort your feelings about this novel. Because you’ll have feelings. Big ones. Necessary ones, I believe.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Dark Places (by Gillian Flynn)

I was simultaneously repelled and sucked in. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I hid from my family to read it over Thanksgiving vacation. So, yeah, it was a pretty good read.

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame), scared the ever-loving shit out of me.

And there you have it.

The story both sucked me in and repelled me. I wanted to know more, to solve the puzzle, to KNOW what happened. Simultaneously, I just wanted to get it out of my head.

It’s grizzly y’all. The scene that plays over and over again is horrific. It gave me nightmares. And I couldn’t shake it, couldn’t stop it from running on a loop in the back of my mind.

But what’s really compelling about the book is that there are no heroes. Everyone (save perhaps one character) is multi-faceted, complex, and far from perfect. The points of view vary, which adds a texture that builds suspense and draws out the mystery. And it relies on the one principle that shoots abject fear through my heart: everything can rest on one decision. One decision can end life as you know it.

But can it really?

Or is there something bigger at play, beneath the surface, in our subconscious, in events that other people set in motion?

I’m not sure this book will answer that question. But it sure as hell will make you ponder it. And isn’t that what horror is supposed to do: make us wrangle with the light & darkness within ourselves and question what really separates the good from evil?

And maybe that line is much thinner than we think.

 

 

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars (A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey Through Consciousness)

The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars is a mash-up of sorts. He loosely chronicles his wife’s end of life journey & his own grief, which he views thought the lens of neuropsychology, philosophy, myth, and atheism.

 

I took an Intro to Philosophy Course in college. I remember the distinct feeling of my brain aching, because it had no solid idea on which to take hold. Everything—ideas, the world, my very self—felt illusory. It was unsettling.

What does that have to do with The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars: A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey Through Consciousness by Paul Broks? Everything. This book is a mash-up of sorts. He loosely chronicles his wife’s end of life journey & his own grief, which he views thought the lens of neuropsychology, philosophy, myth, and atheism.

“But those are multiple lenses!” you’re probably protesting. Why, yes. Yes they are. And that’s precisely why I could make it through the book without being launched into an existential crisis (although it took me 10x longer than usual).

Broks works hard to make complicated concepts accessible. He tells stories, draws parallels, and guides the reader through an examination of human consciousness—in part using quantum physics of all things. Here’s my favorite bit: 

“There’s a tantalizing pleasure to be had the unfathomability of quantum physics. But what if we ourselves are unfathomable?…[what if] human beings are, to the human mind, fundamentally, intrinsically, incomprehensible. We might get glimpses of what we fundamentally are . . but only glimpses.”

How beautifully…cosmic. The whole book felt like a grand wandering through time & space and the opportunity to get a rare glimpse at the mystery of what makes us who we are.