Campaign for the American Reader

This entry was recently posted on the wonderful website, Campaign for the American Reader. Check out what other authors are reading by visiting www.americareads.blogspot.com.

I typically have several books on my nightstand and a stack of magazines I subscribe to—Tin House, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Poet’s and Writers, Creative Nonfiction and Writer’s Digest. If I’m lucky, I’m able to read snippets from each book before bed at night and find a moment during the day to catch up on the latest issue of one of my magazines. If I’m lucky, that is. Gone are the days I enjoyed chunks of time to gobble up books. Now, I read late at night, absorbing what I read in bits and pieces. Most of the time, my reading choices are connected to particular experiences or person in my life, as I’ve noted for each choice.

Since I’ve spent the past couple of years writing Lilly Ledbetter’s memoir, Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight for Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, I’m always reading a memoir. Currently, I’m reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I read memoirs for the same reason we all do: to discover the emotional truths someone else has wrested from their life’s journey. I also read memoirs to see how writers craft a narrative from the messy facts of life, how they shape their experiences into an object of beauty, and how they crystallize a moment into its essence much like a poet does. At the beginning of her memoir, Strand reflects, “I’d set out on the trail so I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again.” What she finds is she’s consumed with her most immediate cause of physical suffering. But as she navigates the hardships she encounters in the wilderness, she does indeed restore her soul, learning that she has no choice but to face and navigate time after time on the trail, as in life, another seemingly impossible obstacle. Strayed writes about her emotional and physical adversities with humor, wisdom and honesty.

The Architecture of a Novel by Janet Vandenburgh

(Recommended by writer who has published nine novels in the past ten years.)

I want to control, plan and orchestrate the ending of a novel even before I’ve put one word on the blank page. This book is great for me because it explores the organic nature of writing while at the same time discussing the immutable laws about a novel’s structure. Vandenburgh writes about learning the truths of a novel from the inside out. She also writes, “ A book, as I’m writing it, gives me someplace I always need to be and it feels to me like home.” My sentiments exactly. She notes how stubbornness and the daily discipline of writing are far more important than talent when it comes to finishing a novel. She, like so many writers, completes a work while folding laundry, shopping, driving, stirring the soup, carrying on with her day to day life. She dreams the dream of her narrative, running it through her mind while tending to the mundane. In the last half of her book, “The ABCs of Narrative Structure,” she explores the technical aspects of writing, explaining the most basic of narrative truths with fresh language and insight, reminding us what we already know, have forgotten or have yet to discover.

The parenting book I read and reread is Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. A dear friend who was the counselor at a suburban hugh school where I taught high school English recommended this book to me when I asked her about good parenting books. This choice was perfect for me. I had read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophic Living, so I knew a bit about his Buddhist take how to heal ourselves. Now, I’m the antithesis of a mindful parent. I screech and scream and react and then overreact. That’s why I reread this book. Parenting for Kabat-Zinn is a spiritual practice. He shows the reader how to cultivate an awareness to help her stay calm, grounded and clear in the stressful daily lives of families. He illustrates his advice with stories and his own experience. In his eyes, parenting is really an eighteen year meditation retreat where parents are challenged to become aware of our authentic selves, through breath and quiet contemplation, in order to grow so we give our greatest gift to our children: our presence in the deepest, most spiritual sense of the word.

Thrive: The Vegan Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life by Brendan Brazier

(Given to me by my husband.)

I’ve always been focused on nutrition and now more so than ever as I careen into middle age, face my mortality and understand how our food choices, the treatment of animals we eat, and our method of food production affect our planet’s future and our children’s health. My husband has recently become a vegan after giving up meat almost fifteen years ago. I no longer eat meat either or consume much dairy. Now I do have milk in my coffee and the occasional milkshake. Moderation is the key for me. But if you don’t eat meat or dairy and most recently wheat (after reading Wheat Belly by William Davis), coming up with healthy meals means you need to research extensively to learn about what to eat. What Thrive offers that is most helpful for me right now is an array of menu choices and recipes. The meal preparation is a bit time consuming, but it’s worth it. This book is about how to develop a long-term eating plan with a plant-based diet. It also has information about what and how to eat to sustain a good exercise routine.

The Gift of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You Are Supposed To Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown (Recommended by my friend as we drove to a conference where we spoke on a panel to college girls about leadership.)

I have read so many self help books delving into emotional and psychological issues by folks like Ingrid Bacci, John Bradshaw and Harriet Lerner. This one, however, is already a favorite. I’ve arrived at the point in my life where Brown’s research and stories about how shame erodes our quality of life and love ring true. She explains that being worthy in the present moment is the basis of our emotional health. And she gives a road map to clearing the shame—a simple yet courageous call to speak the truth, not wallow in the swampland of shame, but be authentic by speaking from the heart to combat the shame dumpers in your life and hold people accountable with a compassionate but firm voice.

Poetry: American Primitive by Mary Oliver

(Given to me many years ago by a good friend who is now a marriage counselor living in San Francisco)

I read poetry to remind myself how powerful and beautiful language is. How amazing it is that a poem contains worlds! Reading poetry I experience so much with so few words. I read Oliver’s poems to remind me how to use a language of economy in my own writing.


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