This week, I wrote a Last Word about the struggle of reading as an adult in this age defined by fast-paced, shiny distractions. I asked a few area writers, and they gave a whole list of challenges, tricks and personal experiences with reading.
That included local Shann Ray, who not only manages to be an award-winning short-story writer, a professor at Gonzaga and a counselor, but occasionally play basketball, and, you know, be married.
So how does he balance all that and still find time to read?
“I didn’t like reading in high school,” Ray says “I think I was resistant to reading because of my own problems. Authority problems.”
But that all changed in college, he says, with a young woman named Jennifer.
“I met my future wife and I read a book called A Severe Mercy. The story of people who have a really in-depth personal relationship."
Oddly, it's a book that ends with his wife dying of cancer when he’s having affairs. But they loved the whole relationship being described before the collapse happened, and decided to model their own after it.
“In their relationship, they went back and read every major, major book that had influenced the other person’s thought, to get to know each other,” Ray says. “So we decided, we’ll just pick 10.”
He could only come up with seven.
“They were like, boy’s dog books,” Ray says. “Literally, Jen had already read the seven.”
But he says his wife’s picks were fantastic: Voltaire’s Candide. Tale of Two Cities. Les Miserables. The whole Lord of the Rings series. C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves.
“I read those under the context of love. I never looked back,” Ray says. “‘I immediately thought, I have been a poor citizen.”
When the two got married they decided not to initially have TV in their house, in order to encourage reading and conversation as a replacement. And unlike many of us these days, the computer and cell-phone doesn’t dominate either.
“My foundation and my wife’s foundation has been to read together, not to access technology together,” Ray say. “Technology is like a small, slender thread in this massive tapestry of books.”
So while the modern couple can easily spend a night staring at separate laptops and cell-phone screens, they curl up with books. They memorize vast passages of poetry and sacred texts together, just like when they were dating decades ago.
It’s like a sacrament in their relationship. A couple that reads together succeeds together.
“When you’re reading real things, try your hardest to give it a sentimental read – that is, see the best in whatever that artist is trying to do,” Ray says, drawing on an idea from Jonathan Johnson, an Eastern Washington University poet. “A book, more than a movie, more than online set of moments – reading a book, I feel, is life-transformative. If a person has an openness to what’s coming down.”
The last three books that "blew his mind:"
Deepstep Come Shining, by C.D. Wright
“She’s so unique. She’s a southern white woman who has accessed the atonement of the whole slavery element in America, by writing in the voices of the South. I think she means by ‘deepstep come shining’ is, ‘Death, bring it on.’ I’m ready for Death. The character she has in there is based on an historical black character who was a profound leader in the South, but subtle, not like an MLK, an average person, but an amazing person. But full of love, full of just readiness to change this culture, you know? I think it’s like, death bring it on. Deepstep come shining. I wrote her a note telling her how much she loved it. And she wrote back. That’s amazing.”
The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde.
“Unbelievably revolutionary. Just breaking codes all over the place. He was a top-level critic and also a top-level artist, and I think that’s an amazing combination. He guesses at what kind of critique he’s going to receive and implodes all the critique in the art. It’s pretty awesome.”
The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene.
“Another incredible work of inner turmoil in world-level atrocities.”
Gonzaga hosts several writers and poets annually as part of the series, organized by the university's English department and College of Arts and Sciences. Featured artists read their works aloud, take questions from the audience and discuss their careers and creative processes.
The Visiting Writer Series this academic year also hosts poet Brenda Hillman (Oct. 21), writers Joanna Luloff (Nov. 20), Douglas Kearney (March 25) and Michael Gurian (April 15); and Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson (Feb. 18).
Butterworth's writing has been published by Algonquin Books and Lost Horse Press. Radium Watch Dial Painters, a compilation of his poems, is a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards. Tonight, he reads excerpts from this book in the Cataldo Globe Room at 7:30 pm. The event is free and open to the public.
Writerly types, rejoice! Your favorite Spokane sons, Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter, have started a podcast where they read excerpts from things they're working on, talk about writing and interview guests.
It's called "A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment" and you can find it here or embedded below.
The discussions offer insight into how Alexie and Walter work, plus glimpses at unpublished works. But they're also conversational and wide-ranging enough to sound like you're just eavesdropping on friends. Enjoy!
If you needed more evidence of Spokane's recent literary boom, here you go: Shawn Vestal has been nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize.
The $25,000 prize is awarded for the best debut book by an author and Vestal's collection of short stories, Godforsaken Idaho, made the final cut, along with four other books.
Vestal, who we profiled upon the release of his book, is likely best known in Spokane as a columnist for the Spokesman-Review. But after receiving his MFA from Eastern Washington University's Inland Northwest Center for Writers, Vestal dove into fiction and received rave reviews for his debut collection of stories, which are heavily influenced by his youth growing up in rural Idaho.
Vestal will find out if he won the prestigious honor on on July 30.
Like the all-too-familiar chorus of an Alice Cooper song, school is out for summer. (Or really close.) And with the final bell arrived something we only remember faintly from last August — free time.
There is no luxury quite like it, and few things better to fill it than a stack of books and a summer reading list. The public libraries of Spokane, Coeur d'Alene and Spokane County are ready for the school vacation with a multitude of programs to fill the time and keep everyone's brain from melting a bit in the summer heat.
Calling all Chemists
The subject of the summer is science, and they're coming at it from all angles. "Fizz, Boom, Read!" is the title of the kids summer reading program, while teens will be following the theme "Spark a Reaction." Reading lists reflect this theme, and program activities are science-based.
The Downtown Spokane Public Library is hosting the Discover Earth traveling exhibit, which will be on display through August and features hands-on learning stations.
The Coeur d'Alene Public Library hosts a Library Lab (every Tues, 1-2 pm) for 7- to 12-year-olds, which gives kids time to work on their science stations, prepping all summer for the big Science Fair that is held at the end of July.
Age Don't Matter
This summer, Spokane Public Library started an Adult Summer Reading Program with a reading list formed for the grown-up bunch. Turn in a complete reading log, and you will be entered into a drawing for several prizes, including an e-reader.
The Spokane County Library District has an entire program of activities catering to adults. In the next few months, you can learn about how to homebrew your beer, listen to a lecture on DNA research, and practice your golf swing with PGA-certified instructors. The complete activities schedule can be found here.
The Fee? Free.
The Coeur d'Alene Public Library is waving the overdue fees of any kids or teens that pick up a reading log or participate in any of the program activities — all of which are free.
The giveaways are numerous. Finish 15 books or 15 hours of reading before Aug. 30, and you get to grab a free book from the giveaway book supply at Spokane Public Library. Sign up here. Teens in CdA can turn in their reading log to be eligible for a drawing at the end of the summer for a Kindle Fire HDX. More information and program registration can be done online at cdalibrary.org.
The latest chapter in the Amazon vs. Hachette showdown has brought award-winning author Sherman Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and Portland's Powell's bookstore into the spotlight.
The dispute, if you're unfamiliar, is rooted in disagreement between the online everything store and book publisher Hachette over the costs of books and e-books. It's led to Amazon delaying shipments and preventing orders of Hachette books.
As it turns out, one of the authors published by Hachette is comedian Stephen Colbert. Another is National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie. So, Colbert had Alexie on his show Wednesday to discuss the issue and pose a challenge to viewers: "We're gonna prove that I can sell more books than Amazon!"
Alexie recommended California, a mid-apocalypse love story of which Amazon is preventing pre-orders. So Colbert is now selling the book on his website via a link to buy the book from Powell's in Portland. (Colbert Nation is using the hashtag #CutDownTheAmazon to rally.)
Portland's massive independent bookstore didn't know until Wednesday morning that Colbert would make the push that night and tells the Oregonian it's been swamped with orders. (The book is currently at the top of its bestsellers list.) Powell's is not yet releasing numbers of sales, saying it would allow Colbert to make the announcement on his show. (There was no mention in last night's episode.)
Alexie has been outspoken about Amazon's recent tactics, and last fall he started "Indies First," calling on fellow authors to spend a day selling their books in local independent stores and to make independent stores the first choice for buying their books online.
Yes, you can support the cause by buying California from Powell's. But even better: Get it from our own Auntie's Bookstore, which is taking orders here.
For its 13th year, the Spokane Is Reading program is taking readers to an island off the southwest coast of Florida, where a family with a gator-wrestling theme park entertains a dwindling number of tourists and tries not to fall apart. The book is Swamplandia!, and author Karen Russell will come to speak at two free events on Oct. 16.
The program — organized by Spokane County Library District, Spokane Public Library and Auntie’s Bookstore — is kind of like a community-wide book club, with a new book selected each year. Last year’s selection was Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple.
Russell was awarded a coveted MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2013 for her writing, and has also published two collections of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Swamplandia!, her first novel, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011, a strange year when no winner was selected. (The other two finalists were Train Dreams by Denis Johnson and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace.)
Russell is scheduled to speak here on Oct. 16 at 1 pm at the Spokane Valley Event Center, and later at 7 pm at the Bing Crosby Theater.
At the intersection of psychology and bathroom etiquette is this story from The Atlantic: The Private Lives of Public Bathrooms. The piece explores the history of our bathroom-associated shame, the strange ways we behave and react to others in public restrooms and how all of that can prevent some people from being able to use them at all. It's a strange and fascinating read that summarizes its central question this way: “Despite our evolution as civilized humans who can send spaceships to Mars and contemplate the nature of our own existence, we all still have to shit. And yet, it’s something nearly everyone is ashamed of and disgusted by.” I, for one, never knew there was so much to learn about public bathrooms.
— HEIDI GROOVER
In his latest book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, journalist Hooman Majd chronicles his year living in Iran — where he was born, but did not grow up — with his Midwestern-born wife and infant son. It’s a crazy experiment, one that begins with the question: What’s really so crazy about Americans living in Iran? It’s partially a story about what “home” means, and the difference between being from somewhere and living there. But Americans’ view of Iran as a vaguely exotic and sinister place is not lost on Majd, and he deftly describes the way the bureaucracy is both absurd and chillingly personal in scenes that feel like a cross between 1984 and Catch-22. But the highlights so far — I’m only about halfway through the book — are the travelogue-style cultural anecdotes, like the way Iranians loudly disapprove of the indignity to both father and son when Majd takes his baby out strapped to his chest in a front carrier.
— LISA WAANANEN
Reading, in this dark age of Twitter, Netflix and Candy Crush, is a constant battle. Far easier to take the laptop to bed than a big thick paperback. But nevertheless, I’ve been slowly making my way through IQ84, Haruki Murakami’s behemoth of a novel. A little over halfway through, the most interesting element, so far, is how much the fantastical elements have been downplayed. The notion that there’s something wrong, something strange creeps up nearly as slowly on the readers as it does the characters.
The best part, though, are the parts that aren’t fantastical or broad. They’re the little elements of everyday life. A woman meeting a colleague at a bar. An writer exhilarated by the possibility he sees embedded in the manuscript.
As other more grandiose themes, like religion, control and destiny, begin to peep out through IQ84’s pages, it will be interesting to see if Murakami will prevent these more modest insights from being overwhelmed.
— DANIEL WALTERS
With pitch-black wit and fearless dialogue, Phil Klay's Redeployment renders the Iraq War through the young, obscene, acronym-heavy voices of those who fought it. Released earlier this year, the collection of short stories has already earned multiple comparisons to the Vietnam classic, The Things They Carried, by offering an intense, unfiltered tour of the soldier's soul. Klay, a former public affairs officer with the Marines, puts a variety of characters through the worst of war while others return home to fight new battles within themselves. I'm only through the first few stories, but Klay brings sharp, nuanced insight to the many struggles American soldiers and Marines face with an authenticity that rings truer than many competing efforts.
— JACOB JONES
Two weeks ago, the Meridian School Board heard two hours of public testimony over a book on the 10th grade supplemental reading list. Parents at the school district near Boise had complained about the book a few weeks earlier, saying it was unsuitable for students because of profanity, references to masturbation and generally being “anti-Christian.” At the meeting, a student presented 350 student signatures in support of keeping the book.
In the end, the three-person board voted: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie would be removed from the district’s curriculum.
After reading about this, Jennifer Lott of Spokane and her friend Sara Baker — who’s also from Spokane but now lives in Seattle — decided to do something about it. They came up with a plan to buy 350 copies of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian — one for each student who signed the petition. They reached out to a Meridian School District teacher, who will help coordinate distribution of the donated books for World Book Night on April 23.
Lott, who has a background in public libraries and issues like Banned Books Week, says she and Baker are pro-education and support the free exchange of ideas.
“Blocking students from learning about controversial ideas just never seems to work, in my experience,” she says.
Over the weekend, they raised two-thirds of their goal of $3,000, mostly in increments of $5 to $25 from individual donors. They haven't discussed a specific plan if they end up exceeding the goal, but they may purchase other books that have been challenged or banned.
The book is Alexie’s first for young adults, and won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It tells the story of 14-year-old Arnold Spirit, known as Junior, who’s growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit. He transfers to an all-white high school 22 miles away — where he’s the only Indian aside from the school mascot — and the book chronicles his year attempting to fit in at the new school while being seen as a traitor at home.
Alexie frequently makes the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged authors; he’s in good company with other frequently challenged authors such as Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Judy Blume, Mark Twain, Lois Lowry and John Steinbeck.
Certain Idaho folks think I'm a Godless masturbator. Well, Godless Masturbator is my In'din name.— Sherman Alexie (@Sherman_Alexie) April 9, 2014
First things first. If you don’t know the name Charlie LeDuff, watch this. Now this. OK. That guy is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter and he’s got a mix of serious chops and flair you won’t find anywhere else. LeDuff’s Work and Other Sins, which I recently finished, is a collection of New York City vignettes, stories of bar patrons and factory workers and 9/11 firefighters. The stories are dense with sensory detail, pulling you into the city and the lives of its characters. Now I’m on to Detroit: An American Autopsy, in which LeDuff returns to his broke and broken hometown. With writing that can at times, like LeDuff’s on-screen presence, feel too sensational, the book explores the big news behind the city’s fall: the politics, the corruption, the pension plans. But it also paints a vivid portrait of the city, its people and the lessons Detroit’s story holds for the rest of us. As LeDuff puts it, “You better look at Detroit because that’s what happens when you run out of money.”
— HEIDI GROOVER
One of my favorite blogs these days is Go Book Yourself because it’s a human curated feed of books to read based on ones I’ve already read and love. It’s not like those generic Amazon recommendations that sometimes totally miss the mark. I’ve gone back to Go Book Yourself time and time again, and I’ve not once been disappointed. Right now, I’m working on Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident, recommended because of my love for The Da Vinci Code and anything Jorge Luis Borges ever wrote. Being myself a little obsessed with the idea of teleportation (if I had a superpower, that would definitely be it), the title jumped out at me and I have not at all been disappointed. I’d never read any of Beauman’s work before, but his writing is sharp and funny and he gives us the beginnings Nazi Germany but from the perspective of a totally clueless, apolitical, unlucky-in-love theater set designer determined to solve a few mysteries of his own. There’s history, there’s romance, there’s noir and it all works together beautifully, the end result being this amazing page-turner that keeps me up at night.
— CLARKE HUMPHREY
First, a confession. I used to be an avid reader, devouring books by the week. But lately whenever I sit down to read in the evenings or before bed, all I do is fall asleep within mere minutes. That said, it takes me ages to get through a novel, so instead I’ve been bookmarking and saving tons of long form pieces to my Instapaper account. The most interesting piece I’ve finished recently is Buzzfeed’s longform piece on the Russian political activist band Pussy Riot. “What Does Pussy Riot Mean Now” gives both a history of how the all-female group’s members came together, and how two of those women ended up being imprisoned by Vladimir Putin for two years after the group’s famous protest performance inside Moscow’s main cathedral. The piece also examines the feelings of Pussy Riot’s members who weren’t jailed, and their fear the group’s overall message has been lost now that two of their bandmates are internationally famous.
— CHEY SCOTT
The military-civilian divide is a topic that interests me enough I’ll click just about every link I see about it — so I know when I encounter a particularly good story or essay, and I recently read an exemplary one: “After War, a Failure of Imagination,” an essay in the New York Times by Iraq veteran and author Phil Klay. In it, he challenges the notion that war is a uniquely terrible experience understandable only to those who were there.
It’s a difficult spot to be in, for both. The civilian wants to respect what the veteran has gone through. The veteran wants to protect memories that are painful and sacred to him from outside judgment. But the result is the same: the veteran in a corner by himself, able to proclaim about war but not discuss it, and the civilian shut out from a conversation about one of the most morally fraught activities our nation engages in — war.
Another of my topics: Women’s participation on the Internet, of which there have also been some great pieces recently. Start with this long piece by Amanda Hess about attempting to document anonymous threats; then this shorter, detailed piece by Amy Wallace about the personal attacks on women who write about controversial topics; then this personal story by Laurie Penny about why short hair brings out the Internet hate.
— LISA WAANANEN
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