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Fighting Bad Reading Habits: My Never Ending Story

book coverSomewhere in the annals of my brain there exists a 1980s movie archive. And in that archive there is a relatively well-kept record of a movie about a boy who reads a magical library book. This is not to be confused with my 1990s movie archive record about a boy who befriends three library books. In the 80s movie, Bastian reads a story that he eventually realizes he must fully participate in. In other words, unless he admits the power he holds as a reader of the NeverEnding Story, the world within that story will be destroyed. Like a good Hollywood storyline, it takes almost the whole movie for Bastian to figure it out. Once he fully participates in the story, he is able to transform from the passive reader to the active participant. He then helps to rebuild the world of the story just as he imagined it.

            As a writer, I sometimes (often) struggle to participate in the reading that I know I will have to write about later. Like Bastian, I find myself moving through the novel/article/essay/memoir a bit passively. Maybe I am expecting the text to tell me what to think.

As we advance through our higher education, the onus becomes more and more on the student to interact with, and react to, a text in more complex ways. During my undergraduate studies, I was forced (against my best efforts) to find ways to participate in my reading more actively in order to facilitate my writing. I’ll start by telling you about the (several) bad reading habits I developed, and what that meant for my writing:

 

  1. Reading something only once
  2. Waiting until I was done reading before writing anything down
  3. NOT making notes in the text (marginalia, highlighting key quotes/passages, dog-earing, sticky notes, etc.)
  4. Being too comfortable while reading
  5. Reading without breaks

 

All of these reading habits (or lack thereof) often amounted to writing that was impressionistic. Don’t get me wrong. I wrote a great impression, but it is difficult (and also oxymoronic) to create impressions that have depth, precision, and specificity. I also found that I struggled getting through longer texts without falling asleep or losing focus (interest). This made it difficult to retain what I had read and to get the reading done in time to write a thoughtful response. In order to improve my writing, I knew I needed to participate in my reading in more productive ways.

Essentially, I started by self-diagnosing. Some of it was easy. For instance, I never really developed any serious note-taking skills in undergraduate studies, so it was easy to take note (pun!) of how that might help me. I didn’t like the idea of interrupting my engagement with a new text by making a note every few sentences, so I started reading things at least twice. I’d give it that initial read-through so that I could just wrap my head around it, and then I’d go through again with my fine-tooth comb. I would type up any interesting or difficult passages in a Word document and write mini-responses or just some basic instructions to myself about how a specific passage or idea might help me construct a response. The second read-through helped me respond more immediately, and also allowed the text to sink in a little deeper.

Once I was comfortable typing notes, I eventually expanded my strategy and started marking up the text itself.

[The disclaimer here is if you don’t own the text or it’s not your photocopy, marking it up is essentially destruction of property.]

notes imageOf course, marking up a text can include digital markup. I’ve taken advantage of Adobe’s highlight/comment tools if I have a PDF version, and there are dozens and dozens of apps that will allow you to annotate digital documents. Of course, if you’re stuck with a print version you don’t own, you can always go for sticky notes. I’ve even gone as far as color coding my sticky notes based on specific characters in a novel. So by engaging with the text more actively, I was able to locate and discuss specific areas of the text. Taking good notes can also help to jumpstart that first paragraph because you already have some material to work with.

            The last two bad habits may just be my own personal issues, but just in case you too suffer from nodding off and zoning out while reading complex/longer texts…

When I suddenly couldn’t get through a 10-page article without falling asleep, I figured it was time to change things. I also had some lengthy novels (Dickens…) to get through in the span of a week. It’s hard to settle in for a good long read without making yourself overly comfortable. Maybe you start by sitting up with your feet on the ground, but then you lean back and find something to prop your feet on. The next thing you know, the couch pillows have all huddled around you and a blanket has crept up your lap all the way to your chin. The couch monster has consumed you. You eventually come to with a book dangling from your hand, and you may or may not have lost your page. But you’ve certainly lost your motivation.

sleepy bastianIn other cases you may just find your mind wandering at every little turn of events. You have to reread the same paragraph for the tenth time, and you can’t really remember what happened the chapter before. In both cases, you need to get in motion and get a little less comfortable.

If I find myself getting cozy the moment I sit down, I make sure to escort the pillows and blankets from the premises. Sometimes I’ll situate myself at the kitchen table, or somewhere where it’s more difficult to lounge. If I find that my mind is wandering or I am just robotically reading the words on the page, I’ll take a walk or do light exercise to give my eyes and mind a little rest. There’s nothing productive or particularly useful about plowing through a text just so you can say you read it. It’s not likely to help you in a class discussion, and passive reading will likely give rise to poor writing.

I don’t really remember the sequel to “The NeverEnding Story” because, let’s be honest, it was probably terrible. But the point of using this old movie reference was to let you know that as a writer, it is an ongoing battle to bring your active reading skills to the text each and every time. We are not always able to read longer texts twice, and sometimes we over-notate texts on a first read. As a general rule, giving yourself the best opportunity to read well and read actively can not only improve the precision and depth of your content but facilitate the process of getting started.

If you do it right, reading will feel kind of like flying through the city streets on your luck dragon, chasing down bullies.

bastian and falcor

My Summer Vacation: Escaping from OZ

Every time the school year starts up again, I groan and moan and drag my feet. I am slow to let go of my summer routine. This is nothing new. It’s a ritual many of us have engaged in since, I don’t know, elementary school. It could just be that simple transition from loads of free time and fun to the daily grind of classes and assignments. We have to get reacquainted with that fast and furious routine when we just seemed to be getting good at our dog days/doldrums routine. We have to knock the rust off, gather our courage, and find our brains in order to get back to where we were last year.

In light of my most recent summer, I submit an alternative to the rusty, scared and brainless theory. As much as I wanted a lazy, meandering summer, I instead had to scramble to find a summer job or two or three. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people who have that bartending or restaurant job lined up each summer, so I usually combine two or three part-time jobs to make my summer rent. Usually these are jobs I’ve had before or can easily get; the kind of jobs that don’t mind that you’ll be gone in two months. But this summer I ended up working at a new job that demanded a lot from my brain. It wasn’t by any means a passive or casual engagement. In fact, my training alone was over 3 weeks long. The first two weeks were spent in a training “classroom” reviewing rules, regulations, policies, and procedures and learning the company’s computer software. It was exhausting, and by the time I was assigned to a “team” I realized how busy my summer was going to be. Within a week of training with my team, my supervisor was offering overtime and I was taking it. I earned enough to make rent and catch up on other bills. And, despite my best efforts to relax, I spent nearly every evening meeting up with friends or exercising. Even my weekends filled up with plans and activities and daytrips. In short, I had one of the busiest summers ever.

So I hate to think of myself as rusty right now when the truth is that I stayed in motion. And if I didn’t have a brain, well then my summer job would have burned me out. In fact, I finally found the courage to tell my previous employer that I wasn’t coming back after 10 years of working there. I learned a whole new set of job skills, got in shape (it gets more difficult every year), played in the annual Wildwood Beach Ultimate Tournament for the 7th straight year, visited the NJ Botanical Gardens for the first time, celebrated my birthday with a day in NYC, climbed some good rock, and upgraded my fish tank multiple times (not enough to be a fish nerd but could pass as a fish enthusiast). So to say I’ve gotten rusty just seems unfair. I’d like to give myself some credit for what I’ve been doing rather than focusing on everything I didn’t do.

The tricky transition back into studenthood can feel like being a kid in a strange land where everything is sort of familiar but mostly disorienting. A student is not something we ever stop being (insert lifelong learning cliché here), and it’s something that can define and dictate the bulk of our year in a way that makes us feel a little guilty or lazy or inadequate when we look back on our summers spent being the rest of our selves. We so often obsess over what we “lose” during the summer, and maybe we imagine that returning to school helps us find it again.

Although it was just as difficult as always to let go of my summer routine, I’d like to take some time to thank myself (and my loved ones) for a great summer that helped prepare me (along with a good education) for the future. Those of you with busy, productive summers, give yourselves a pat on the back. For the rest of you, knock the rust off! It’s almost September!!

Sometimes It Feels Good to Let Go

My most satisfying piece of writing (or writing experience) was 40+ pages of fiction that I eventually trashed. Not literally. It’s collecting digital dust in my digital archive somewhere.

So why did I write 40+ pages of fiction, you ask. Mostly because I like to add plus signs to numbers to casually indicate approximate quantities, but I was also working on my undergraduate senior writing project. It was a two-semester writing requirement to complete my B.A. in Creative Writing. What made it (a little more) daunting was that I was mostly a poet at that point and had only written fiction for the two or three classes/workshops that required it. But I am a narrative poet, so storytelling came quite naturally. What did not come naturally was sustaining a narrative for more than a few stanzas. It was like going from being a sprinter to a marathoner. And all sorts of things need to be managed on that same longitudinal scale when writing 40+ pages. Plot, setting, character development, pacing. Even finding enough language was rough. I was used to every word counting in a poem. Sustaining that kind of “charged” language in a short story would not only be tedious, it would be ridiculous.

But there I was, cranking out 40+ pages of fiction. I had an epigraph, an idea and a character, and I ran with it. The result, based on the feedback from my workshop group, was something that was sometimes artful, sometimes beautiful, but mostly it was a lot of description of a guy riding his horse through the woods with some occasional flashbacks to his past. At the time, it was monumental (in a good way). But when I had to try to move that story forward and maintain that descriptive mode, it was monumental (in a bad way). I started to panic, I felt that I had made a mistake, I remembered to breathe.

I thought about the stories that had inspired me or given me the courage to write my story. The two essential pieces of literature for me at that time were “Michael Kohlhaas” by Heinrich von Kleist and “The Passion” by Jeanette Winterson. They are very different tales, but the strange, dreaminess in Winterson and the righteous violence in von Kleist helped me reformulate my approach to the tale I wanted to tell. My first move was to let go of those 40+ pages and start fresh. I ended up with 9 pages that weren’t very descriptive, but they were telling a good story.

The satisfaction in this experience was twofold. I learned to be able to let go of a substantial piece of writing that wasn’t accomplishing what I knew I wanted to do, and I took a few steps towards being able to manage all the parts of a good story. That new (to me) mode of writing, that reassessing of style and content, allowed me to produce four mini-stories, each with its own protagonist but each connected chronologically and geographically to the previous tale. I enjoyed the challenge and the process and the outcome. One day I’ll revisit those pages and maybe even be inspired to tell that tale again.

 

NOTE: As per usual, it wouldn’t be a CWE grad assistant blogpost (head nod to Meg DeJong) without a music reference. My folktale was partially inspired by the English folksong “John Barleycorn.” As with any folksong, there are many variations. My first encounter with it was the version performed by Traffic (“John Barley Corn Must Die”). The song is about John Barleycorn, a personification of the cereal crop, barley. He suffers at the hands of all the people involved in the processing of the grain, from the farmer to the miller to the consumer. It’s full of themes such as revenge, violence, sacrifice, resurrection, alcoholism and scapegoating. All of that influenced my story, and some of the scenes of violence in the Traffic song reappear pretty blatantly in my tale as well. It was difficult to deal with violence in my story. I didn’t want it to become a purely shock-value element, but I didn’t want to “turn the lights off” during those moments either. It was also difficult from a realism standpoint, just finding the words to portray the scenes believably.

Anti-climactic.

“You’re so slick, honey, Know every trick now
You know I want it, I want it so bad
You know I need it, I can’t believe it
So come on baby, Please relieve it

Got to give it to me
You got to give it to me” – J. Geils Band, Give it to Me

“But I’m in so deep. You know I’m such a fool for you.
You got me wrapped around your finger, 

Do you have to let it linger? Do you have to, do you have to,
Do you have to let it linger?” – The Cranberries, Linger

 

What the hell is satisfying about writing? Am I ever even truly satisfied with anything I’ve written?

To steal a story that a classmate told recently, the poet Charles Wright used to read Poe while drinking wine late at night, and “feel intense about intensity” before he wrote anything down himself. If there’s anything satisfying about writing, it’s that: those intense feelings of intensity.

That’s at its most and least abstract.

More specifically, satisfying could mean fulfilling a desire/need, or freeing from doubt.

Writing does both and neither. It promises to fulfill a desire and withdraws at the last moment, leaving traces of provocation.

It attempts to convince, but never succeeds, especially if you’re a liar or magician yourself and see it coming.

But that’s where the real satisfaction lives, in the tease and the trick.

I suppose that all writing I do fulfills a desire and a need, but once it’s fulfilled it doesn’t go away…making it not really fulfilled at all. Writing – the need to write, the act of writing, the abrupt stop of all writing – is endlessly there (and not just because I’m a grad student). Every time I write in a journal something funny or cute that my son said is satisfying. Every time I write down another source for my thesis research, it’s satisfying. Every 20 page paper I complete for a course (so far 6 or 7) is satisfying. Every poem I urgently write after semester’s end is satisfying. Being humorous, rebellious, cantankerous, occasionally intelligent and always weird in my writing is satisfying.

There are pieces of writing that I’m particularly satisfied with, which is to say that I’m not satisfied with them at all. There are pieces of my writing that really dissatisfy me, which is to say that I’m totally satisfied with them.

Satisfaction is different than satiety. Gluttons and martyrs know the difference.

And appetites replenish.

 

Chased by my laughter

I once wrote an Ars Poetica-style letter to my mentor. I’m a weird guy, I know. But in there, and I’ll misquote myself, I say something along the lines of writing is like “moving my hand through a river of pages, chasing something shining wet with my childlike laughter.” That’s not even close, but you get the gist of it.

In truth,

who I am as a writer is a little bit like a mash-up song…

 

“It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside. I’m not one of those who can easily hiiiii…”

“iiiiighway to Hell! I’m on the Highway to Hell! No-oo stop sign, speed limit! No…”

“…where man, living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody, making all his nowhere…”

“plan keeps coming up again. The plan means nothing stays the same, but the plan won’t accomplish anything, if it’s not implemented, like it’s always been, and it makes me think of…”

“everyone’s afraid of their own lives. If you could be anything you want, I bet you’d be disappointed. Am I right? Am I right, am I right, am I…”

“Right now!..it’s your tomorrow…Right now!…Come on, it’s everything!…Right…”

“round baby, right round, like a record, baby, right round, round round. I got to be your friend now, baby, and I would like to move in just a little bit…”

“closer to God. Through every forest above the trees. Within my stomach, scraped off my knees. I drink the honey inside your hive. You are the reason I…”

“Staayyyy. Just a little bit longer. Now the promoter don’t mind, and the roadies don’t mind. If we take a little time, and we leave it all behind, and sing one more…”

“song to pass the time. Yeah, a melody to keep me from worrying. Or some simple progression to keep my fingers busy, and words that are sure to come back to me. And they’ll be laughing, and they’ll be laughing. My mediocrity. My mediocrity…”

 

Featured in this mash-up: Elton John, AC/DC, the Beatles, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Van Halen, Dead or Alive, Nine Inch Nails, Jackson Browne, Bright Eyes

“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

At any given moment Meg the Writer is

The bridge in “Get on Up”, stardust, syrupy pancakes, a teacup (with only honey), puffs, seaweedy sea foam, the last stick of Bubble Yum, a .22 snub nose in a black lace garter (must be close to shoot), multivitamins, a book with the corners gnawed off, pie, clenched teeth, dusty sunglasses, Duck Soup, fingerpaint, funk and pillow forts, red poppies, sliced lemons in cold drinks, a ring twisting on a finger (nervously), the smell of baking cookies and cars being fixed, banana split smush, alien toes, Raoul Duke, assorted cheeses, never (sometimes) pencils, stilettos, secular hallelujahs, lots of superglue (for the broken parts), occasional whiskey, shaking moneymakers, umbrellas and bubbles, ripe peaches, antibacterial soap, a (sold) red Stratocaster and Peavey amp, ctrl alt delete, moisturizer, not enough water, bad bearings, El Duderino, discarded crusts, breezes when you most need one, (lost) hair ties, several times broken thumbs and chipped elbows, a king sized bed, slightly moist dirt, channeled Claudia Cardinale, greasy diner menus, the number 3, a (full) moon, silver silk, grilled veggies, ballet shoes on flat feet, Blue Mountain Lake, quicks quarks and also quacks, lime green bumpers, homemade whipped cream, Japanese Maples, Spirographs, ancestors, stacked decks, dried paintbrushes, nakedness, spoons, (disregarded) double yellows, one very delicate item (love), and lots of unmentionables as I’ve already mentioned.

Backlog Blog #2

I would like to state that anger doesn’t manifest in my writing…

“Sometimes I feels so nice, good god
I jump back, I wanna kiss myself”

–James Brown, “Super Bad”

…but it’s a little more complicated than that.
“Yes No. Maybe. I don’t know. Could you repeat the question.”
–They Might Be Giants, “Boss of Me”

For me, anger is that emotion that I don’t deal well with. I deflect, avoid, withdraw, suppress. I can it up, label it and save it for the apocalypse. It’s a wrench in my mental works, or a stick in my spokes, or whatever they say. It stops my machinery. I get gummed up and bogged down by anger. Sure, over the years I’ve had my moments: shouting at walls, punching a door, slamming a door, getting in someone’s face. But 99% of it is passive-aggressive. Even in the few spots where I actually “write angry,” I go back and revise my emotions. In writing, recognizing and modifying emotional manifestations is an exercise in tone.

 

“You know, you really make my life difficult when you can’t even bother to do some dishes when you’re home all day.”

vs.

“Hey. I’d really appreciate it if you could just wash a few dishes at some point in the day. I am having trouble keeping up on them by myself.”

 

Mind you, this is when you have the chance to revise a text. Anger, when spoken, is more difficult to recover. I have used this technique of modified tone when writing emails or memos to coworkers. I certainly consider tone when I write poetry, but I don’t consider anger. Maybe it’s the Incredible Hulk in the room that I refuse to acknowledge, or maybe human emotions are more complex. We like to distinguish ANGER as if it were a pure thing we could identify when we see it:

Image result for angry face

For all we know this guy is straining to lift some heavy weights or is in the midst of celebrating the game-winning goal he just scored. He could be really scared.

The point is, it’s not that easy to know what anger is. When we add words, it only gets more complicated. That’s why we have so many ways to qualify and modify it: irritated, pissed off, furious, livid, annoyed, miffed, peeved, apoplectic. Anger is just an inaccurate idea attached to one vaguely defined dimension of the spectrum of human emotions. Also, it’s all sorts of tangled up with everything else we feel and know and do. So sure, anger manifests itself in my writing. It probably manifests itself in my every waking moment in one way or another (maybe it’s just a byproduct of driving in NJ), but it’s not some simple, singular thing. That we try to hem it in with language is kind of futile and kind of beautiful. I’m sure anger has its place. I’ll let you know when I find it.

Backlog Blog #1

What consumes me is a compelling story.

It’s why I read volumes of poorly written fantasy novels, i.e. Robert Jordan, John Marco, Terry Goodkind, Stephen King. (Sorry kids, no George R. R. Martin)

It’s why I can “endure” some “bad” vocals for the sake of good lyrics:

“William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled ‘round his diamond ring finger”
—Bob Dylan

“Eating snowflakes with plastic forks,
And a paper plate, of course. You think of everything.
Short love with a long divorce,
And a couple of kids. Of course, they don’t mean anything.”
—Isaac Brock

“There’s a middle aged woman, she’s dragging her feet.
She carries baskets of clothes to a laundromat.
While the Mexican children kick rocks into the streets,
and they laugh in a language I don’t understand. But I love them.”
—Conor Oberst.

It’s why I can’t stand a pretty song with bad lyrics (a.k.a. the lyrics to almost every song I have ever tried to write).

  • Ex. Bad lyrics:
    I had a dream
    You were waiting for me
    On the other side of sleep
    But these blankets and sheets
    They are empty
  • Ex. Good lyrics:
    There’s a cigarette in his left hand, there’s a picture of her
    in the darkest little corner of his mind.
    He rolls down the window, and lets those memories float
    out with the ash over the highway

It’s why I write narrative poetry even if people think that stories don’t belong in poems.

  • Ex. Narrative poem (in progress):“I am in the backyard again, dreaming with my hands / plunged into the dirt. I hold the marvelous collapse / of everything in my fingers. My father mows the lawn”

It’s why I fell in love with Haruki Murakami’s novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I like my stories a little dark, a little unbelievable, a little complex. I like my characters to be complicated and difficult to read. I like it better when they’re not cool, when they’re the underdog, when they have guts and doubts and a little touch of madness.

It’s about stories, storytelling, stories within stories, recollection, memory. Tell me a story, tell me your story. Tell me again. Tell me the best parts. Now tell me the worst parts. Now tell me the truth. Now start from the beginning. Pretend there’s no ending. Pretend you’ll continue tomorrow. The lights are off, but I can’t sleep. I read a story from my own past. I had forgotten almost nothing. I was consumed anyway.

“Says she wants to dance to a different groove, Now you know what to do G bust a move”

Currently consuming me are: one self-study, a paper related to the National Writing Project, a paper applying Foucault’s “Birth of the Prison” and “Power/Knowledge” to the literary canon, a paper on Whitman’s counter-counterculture within “Song of Myself” and “Bardic Symbols”, a research symposium presentation and research on the cognitive benefits of humor in the writing center. I think “that’s it.”

Enter the warring Megs, one with OCD and another who just wants to play. Neither one can totally shut off.

“Slim lined sheik faced
Angel of the night
Riding like a cowboy
In the graveyard of the night
New York witch in the dungeon
Of the day
I’m trying to write my novel
But all you do is play” – T. Rex, Baby Boomerang

Consume can mean taking up all your energy and attention oooorrrr it can mean “to completely destroy, as with fire.” I’m kind of an expert at walkin this line, it’s just more intensified right now.

So how do you walk the line?

You don’t, you dance it.

I’m writing now. I’m going to devote some serious time today to at least two of the aforementioned projects. But I’m also going to dance in my kitchen a lot randomly throughout the day and also when I cook later (another Zen way of walking that line).

Kitchen dance playlist (current, though constantly changing, asterisk indicates I get especially consumed and dance in a way that counts as cardio for the day):

“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Superstitious” Stevie Wonder

“Trenchtown Rock” Bob Marley

“Son of a Preacher Man” Dusty Springfield

“You Sexy Thing” Hot Chocolate*

“All Night Diner” Modest Mouse (recently added, thanks Peter)

“Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” PFunk

“Bust a Move” Young MC   (Bust IT!)*

“Use Me” Bill Withers

“Jailhouse” and “Ball and Chain” Sublime

“Work it Out” Beyonce

“You Got the Love” Chaka Khan and Rufus

“What’d I Say (Pt. 1)” Ray Charles*

“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” Sly and the Family Stone

“Dancing Days” STP version

“Got to Give It Up” Marvin Gaye

“Leavin Here” Pearl Jam version

“Think” Aretha

“Annie…” and “Back in the Day” Erykah Badu

“Pump it Up” Elvis Costello

“Gettin Jiggy Wit It” Phish version

“Groove Me” King Floyd*

“Green Onions” Booker T & the MGs

“Baby, It’s You” Smith

“Boom Boom” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” The Animals

“My Favorite Mutiny” and “We are the Ones” The Coup

 

I double dog dare you to put any of these on and not dance. Try it. Be consumed. Hell, come to my kitchen if you want. Have a drink. Laugh at me dancing.

Then go back to being consumed.

Tutus make the experience even better (FYI)

Tutus make the experience even better, FYI. This is an actual portrait.

The Works of George Saunders

About a year ago I watched a PBS documentary about George Saunders, an American short story fiction writer.

writer

From there I was led to a google search of a commencement speech he gave at Syracuse University titled “Err on the Side of Kindness.”  The main point of the speech was a rethinking of the usual commencement  thesis that advises graduates to go out and succeed; conquer the world; go get it!  Saunders told the graduates, that yes they should do all those things, but more important, most important, is, in the process of all the decisions they will be making, career choices, relationship choices, power struggles, all of life’s challenges and tribulations, to be kind to all of the people they come across.  He put the speech into context by recalling a young girl who moved to his Chicago neighborhood and who was not treated kindly by the kids in the neighborhood.  Saunders looked back at that brief relationship with regret, and he asserted that the moments in life that the graduates would regret in the future would be those in which they were mean, not nice, to the people they encounter.  I was moved by the speech and I am not giving the speech its just due.  But here is a link to the full speech. Err on the Side of Kindness – George Saunders.

From there I was intrigued and went to the best local book store in New Jersey, Montclair Book Center

Many of Saunders’ stories share common themes and patterns. They often move away from a linear structure and put the reader in the thought patterns of a character before returning to the story. They often involve the plight of outcasts in American society; the depressed, the poor, the bullied, the downtrodden.   And yet I have never read a funnier writer than George Saunders.  His stories make you feel empathy and sadness for his characters, yet always leave you laughing and wanting to tell a friend about the story you just read.

The story that sticks with me most “Sea Oak” which is written from the perspective of a male stripper who lives in a dangerous, low income housing complex, with his Aunt Bernie and his sister and cousin who both live at home with babies. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but I will say that it takes magic realism to a new place; a scary place; a hysterical place, full of surprises that make you reflect on your own life, while sympathizing with all of the characters in the apartment.   “Sea Oak”can be found in a book of Saunders’ short stories called “Pastoralia.”  Here is a link:  Sea Oak – George Saunders.

If you enjoy it, please go out an support this great author at a local, privately owned book store like Montclair Book Center.

I have at times been consumed by authors; Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, Lydia Lunch come to mind.  But George Saunders has reinvigorated by thirst for literature in a way that no writer has before.  Thanks George!