#FridayReads: Read A Book Day 2018

Yesterday was National Read A Book Day.

Well, Kelly, you might ask, did you read a book?

Well, I might respond, is the sky blue? Is the grass green? Do humans need oxygen to survive? Are we still trapped in a hell dimension?

Which is to say, of course I read a book.

I’ll say a bit about the book I read, but first I want to draw your attention to two delightful essays on books by two fantastic authors. The first is this Twitter thread by Chuck Wendig (you might remember him from the whole gay Star Wars character thing right before The Force Awakens came out, and also that he gives zero fucks about your bigotry).

It’s a long thread, which you should read, but here is my favorite tweet:

Ah, yes. So true, Chuck. So true.

But on a more serious note, books are magical portals of escape! It’s like having a space ship in your pocket. Or a time machine. Or a jet. Or all of these things, and then some.

And more than that, books are vitally important repositories of knowledge, wisdom, and stories–you know, those things that we’ve been making up since the dawn of time? Those things that form our worldviews, our mythology, our religions? Those foundational elements of our very society and humanity?

Neil Gaiman, whose work I’m 100% confident saying saved my fucking life in high school, wrote an essay on the importance of books, libraries, and librarians. Artist Chris Riddell illustrated it, and you should read the whole thing, but I want to put the following image in a frame. Or get it tattooed on my arm. Something.

Words by Neil Gaiman. Pictures by Chris Riddell. Click through for the full essay.

The text in the image reads: Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. We all have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that society is huge and the individual is less than nothing. But the truth is, individuals are the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

I was a miserable teenager. Depressed. Self-harming. Not *quite* suicidal, but man did I think a lot about suicide. Multiple English teachers took me aside to have conversations because they were worried I was going to hurt myself. They were right to worry. Thankfully, I had books. Books saved me. Those teachers saved me. Libraries saved me.

Books are fucking important, and if anyone tells you otherwise, they probably voted for our dipshit fuck president and you should probably run very far away from them

So back to what I was reading on National Read A Book Day.

Yesterday, I finished a re-read of Batman: Hush, which could easily go on my list of ten most important comics. I don’t remember the exact issue I started buying Batman month-to-month, but it was somewhere in the late 500s, and the Hush storyline started with #608, so it came pretty early in my Batman issue reading life. I’d read lots of Batman trade paperbacks before, but this was the first (Batman) storyline I remember reading piece by piece each month.

Reading Hush now took me right back to being an awkward goth teenager, convinced I was in love with a boy who certainly didn’t feel the same way, writing bad poetry about death, and escaping it all by submersing myself in novels and comic books.* I was prepared for my memory to not live up to the reality, but actually Hush is a pretty damn solid Batman story. It’s got everything a good Batman tale should have: Batman/Catwoman romantic tension, action-packed fights, a mystery that keeps you guessing, and Alfred’s dry humor.

Even back then, my bedroom was set up around my books. I had a bunk bed with a futon on the bottom. I hooked up a clip on desk lamp to the top and had pillows and a blanket to make a proper reading fort. The bookshelves in my room were cheap Ikea things, the actual shelves bowed from the number of books stacked onto them. I kept sturdy bags in my car for the sole purpose of filling them with library books whenever I had an excuse to be near the library

I remember reading Hush on that futon, my latest haul from the comic shop in a paper bag next to me, the issue spread across my lap. Thirty-two pages never took me long to read, but when I finished Batman, I had Ed Brubaker’s Catwoman. And then Fables. And then Star Wars. And after I’d gone through my monthly comics binge, I had David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan Saga, and Tolkien, and the volumes of Sandman I checked out of the library over and over.

Clearly, the whole book thing stuck, because now I write them, and teach other people how to write them, and work in a bookstore, where I get to talk about books all day.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Book Review: The Patron Saint of Cauliflower by Elizabeth Cohen

First, a confession: Elizabeth Cohen contacted me a few months ago and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing her new poetry collection. I really loved her short story collection, so of course I said yes. Unfortunately, I did not foresee losing Lexi at the beginning of June, or how much time I’d need to “recover”. As you can see from my publication history, I haven’t done much writing since then, even though I did read this poetry collection back in June. I finally feel like my creative batteries have recharged (though I still miss Lexi fiercely every day), so here is this very overdue review.

cover of The Patron Saint of Cauliflower

The Patron Saint of Cauliflower (Saint Julian Press, $17.50) is first and foremost a poetry collection about food, family, and the complex, multi-faceted connections between the two. The collection opens with “Goulash,” a poem about putting together a clear-out-the-fridge soup, and what’s more, a goulash that children will eat and enjoy. “I think of the insides of them, making sense of beets / and pasta, of chicken strands and slips of onion / the way each one of them will make sense someday / of snow-caked walkways, of books left out in the rain / and heartbreak, which is to say I like the way they chew,” the goulash cook muses.

It’s these moments throughout, the moments that link food (goulash) and the quotidian (slips of onion) to larger existential questions (heartbreak) that elevate the collection above and beyond simple but beautiful writing about food. Poems like “Salt” connect food and the earth with life in a visceral way. Cohen compares the taste of her child’s blood after an attempted suicide to the taste of “sour mash, of salt marsh / of all the mistakes you had ever made.” Salt can enhance flavor, and it is essential for life, but too much will turn food bitter and poison the body. So too with the every day tragedies and hardships we all face. The mother’s blame is felt in these lines as well. Whether or not it’s true, the mother feels that her mistakes have poisoned her child in some way–and no matter how good we are as parents, we always leave our children with something, some trauma.

The collection is not all doom and gloom though. Quite a few poems inject levity, such as “Pink Himalayan Salt,” in which the narrator imagines the salt’s journey from deep, dark mountain caves across the ocean on a plane, probably with a layover at JFK. Another poem acts as a sardonic ode to Cinnabons everywhere, and another personifies an artichoke, which laughs at the woman peeling it to get to the tender heart.

I’d be remiss not to mention the magical elements of The Patron Saint of Cauliflower. A series of poems about the patron saints of various foods (cauliflower, olive oil, pretzels) and spells for the right avocado and the best pesto capture the mystical aspects of shopping for food and cooking. The “Patron Saint of Cauliflower” is a princess and “the beauty queen / at the county fair.” She would make a good wedding bouquet, the narrator says. “You could cast a circle, place / her countenance in its center.” In “Spell for a Layer Cake,” the cookbook is “hallowed” and the cake “can be conjured from nothing.” The poem takes the reader through the motions of baking a cake, the flour, the eggs, the mixing, and then the “something else” of baking: the “incantation” the baker speaks over the cake like a prayer or a wish.

These poems breathe with care, with love, with life. It’s not that they elevate the realm of the domestic, it’s that they shine light on the magic already inherent in these everyday tasks.

Pick up a copy of The Patron Saint of Cauliflower from Powell’s Books!

#WeekendReads: Night Beast by Ruth Joffre

The past two weeks have been a bit weird. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Lexi and out in my garden. My anxiety is high right now for a number of reasons, so I’ve also been making time to sit on my porch and read in the evenings. All of this helps, but it’s still a process. It will always be a process.

Thankfully, there are books. Reading centers me, grounds me, makes me feel connected to my innermost self (the self that I can only really express through writing fiction). Recently, I was lucky enough to receive a digital ARC (advanced reading copy) of Ruth Joffre’s debut short story collection, Night Beast and Other Stories.”

cover of Night Beast

I blew through this collection. I inhaled it as if it were air. It is so, so good. You can read my full review on the Ploughshares Blog, but here’s a snippet:

Reading this collection feels like looking at the world through water—the angles don’t quite match what you expect and the light is diffuse, except when a ripple catches it and momentarily robs you of vision. Joffre’s characters are wispy and insubstantial in the way ghosts of past selves feel when we look back through the haze of time. If you turn your head or look away, they will shift into something else, something new. Something dangerous.

Joffre is one of those writers who makes me go “I WANT TO WRITE LIKE THAT!!” I read this collection once for the journey it took me on, but I will definitely read it again for the craft lessons hiding in its pages (some of which I do address in my review).

If you like strange, queer, unnerving, mysterious fiction with a bite, you absolutely have to read Night Beast and Other Stories. That is a non-negotiable fact.