Happy New Year! (Year of the Dog)

Happy New Year! It’s the year of the dog, which probably has some significance for someone, but I can’t say I know what it might be. Like the Western Zodiac, the Chinese version is derived from myth and superstition, without any basis in science. I do like the idea of celebrating the new lunar year, though, and in modern China, the holiday is known as the Spring Festival. Given the warm temperatures around here this week, that’s completely appropriate!

In Asia, this is a big week for travel. Last year, the holiday was in late January and happened to occur during my research trip to Singapore. Although that was disruptive—some businesses close for the holiday and a day or two on either side—it was also fun to be part of the celebrations. I was staying in a hotel near Singapore’s “Chinatown” (an ironic name, given that the majority of the population of the country is of Chinese descent) and enjoyed walking the streets packed with vendors spelling special foods and traditional items for the holiday. It’s big business in Singapore.

In any case, it’s another chance at renewal. Happy Spring Festival! Happy New Year! Happy Year of the Dog! Gong Xi Fa Cai! 恭喜发财!

Library Liberation

I’m a book hoarder. I couldn’t tell you how many I have, but it numbers in the thousands. I still own a few books I picked up in high school and many from college and grad school days. Despite frequent moves (including two moves to and from Singapore), virtually all of my books have stayed with me over the years. Until recently.

I’ve been in my current house since 2001. Before I moved in, I had bookshelves built in the living room/den and in the third bedroom/office. I also brought with me a few freestanding bookshelves that I’d had in my last home. Those shelves were adequate for a while, but eventually, my library grew beyond capacity. Now, besides the built-ins, I have bookshelves in the guest room, the hallway outside the guest room, and in my bedroom. Not to mention piles on the floor of my office. And also not to mention the boxes of literary magazines that came off shelves to accommodate books that were previously on the floor. I’m swimming in them.

I generally subscribe to the belief that one cannot have too many books, but that assumes that space is expandable infinitely, as if all of the universe were available to me for book storage. There simply comes a time when you run out of room, and I’ve reached that time. (Books aren’t the only problem, I have to say. Where did all those clothes come from? And do I really need all those wine glasses? Plus, what’s with all those coffee mugs?)

If I don’t do something about the books now, someone—who that someone is remains unclear—will have to deal with them when (not if, obviously) I die. (You’ve probably heard about the Swedish Death Cleaning rage; I’m giving it a lot of thought.) So here’s what I’m doing about my book problem.

  1. eBooks/Audiobooks. I own a Kindle. When possible, I buy eBooks. I also listen to books in the car that I get on Audible. I guess those books will “die” with me, as no one else can access them easily, but at least they don’t take up space. (Yes, I feel guilty about feeding the Amazon beast with these purchases, but these are options that fit into my lifestyle neatly.)
  2. Libraries. I’ve rediscovered the library! One book I wanted recently was only available in electronic form from the library, which I thought was ironic, and generally I’m checking out books that I can consult as I’m listening to the audio version, but definitely, the libraries can help relieve my book-acquiring problem. Also, they can be repositories for some books as they come off the shelf at home and look for new homes, although my library only wants books (for its fundraising sales) published within the last two years. That eliminates a lot of the books I would part with willingly.
  3. Selling Books. We have a great used bookstore in my town. They won’t take just any book, but they will take most hardcovers and will pay me for them with store credit. It isn’t much, but it’s something, which is more than nothing. Yes, that means I’ll end up bringing home more books, but it works out to about six books out for one book in, a ratio I can live with that will relieve pressure on the shelving crisis.
  4. BookCrossing. This is the most entertaining option. Take a book from your shelf. Register it at the website to get the book’s particular ID number (not its ISBN). Print a label and add the number. Stick the label inside the cover of the book. Then leave the book somewhere. A finder can then pick up the book and keep it. Ideally, they’ll log onto the website, as instructed by the label, and you can follow the path of the book as it moves from one hand to the next as long as the temporary owners keep the website updated. I released one book several years ago and nothing happened—I have no idea what became of it because whoever picked it up didn’t update the website—but I’m going to do several more in the coming week, so maybe I can stir up some interest. If you find a BookCrossing book, be sure and long on to let the liberator know. I was at a coffee shop today and left a book on a table when I left. A helpful gentleman saw that I’d exited without picking up the book and ran after me with it. I explained what was up and showed him the label I’d put inside. He seemed to have heard of the idea and took the back inside. Perhaps he’ll take the book home. I hope so.
  5. Giveaways. Because I have a growing pile of books that the bookstore won’t buy and the library won’t take, I’ll end up giving them away. Many will end up donated to various organizations, or I’ll give them to individuals, including readers of my blog.
  6. Trash. Sadly, some books in my collection will end up in the trash (or, ideally, in the recycling bin). I’m trying to avoid that, but I fear it’s inevitable.

The Joy of Shakespeare

When was the last time you saw a Shakespeare play? For me, the answer is “last week.” I have the great good fortune of living just outside the small city of Staunton, Virginia, home of the American Shakespeare Center and its fabulous Blackfriars Playhouse, which means I can see live productions of Shakespeare’s plays almost every week of the year.

Truly, though, it’s not just good fortune. It was good planning. When I was looking to relocate from the Washington DC area in late 2000, I visited Staunton and learned that the playhouse, the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, was under construction. That was enough to convince me that this was the right place for me to move. I arrived in the spring of 2001 and the theater opened that fall. To say that I have been a loyal patron of the theater from the beginning is probably an understatement. I think I missed a few productions in the early years—I was still doing a lot of travel for the World Bank on top of the reading and writing I was doing for my MFA program—but since about 2006 or so I’ve seen every play the ASC has produced on the Blackfriars stage. That’s 16 shows most years, including a broad selection of Shakespeare (History, Comedy, and Tragedy), plus plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (Marlowe et al.), a few contemporary plays that in some way speak to or relate to one or more of Shakespeare’s plays (e.g., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard), and two or three Holiday Season plays including the annual tradition of A Christmas Carol.

That means I have seen the entire Shakespeare Canon of 38 plays, something that few can say (unless, of course, you are another regular at the ASC).

The current Renaissance Season, which runs from mid-January to mid-April, is one of the most exciting times of year at the theater. The company of actors, without a director, will put up five plays with very limited rehearsal time. From an audience member’s perspective, that gives the plays a sort of energy that well-rehearsed plays sometimes lack. I had the privilege of watching a couple of early rehearsals of two of the five plays, and I was thoroughly impressed by the collaborative nature of the decision-making process. These actors are professionals, they know what they’re doing, and when they make suggestions they are taken seriously. It was a pleasure to behold.

Three plays are running currently. Both Hamlet and Richard II opened on January 20 and the third, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, opened last week (I’m seeing it this Thursday night). I love this Stoppard play, having first read it in high school in about 1970, and I still have my copy of the script we read back then. Next up are The Way of the World by William Congreve and Antonio’s Revenge by John Marston. (The theater also operates a touring company that is currently on the road with three productions: Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, and an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.)

The wonder of this theater is a little hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it. First, the space is amazing. It’s an intimate theater, where truly there are no bad seats, and it’s gorgeous, made mostly of wood. Enhancing the intimacy, it’s a thrust stage, so the performers are surrounded on three sides by the audience, and they frequently make use of the aisles for entrances and exits, bringing the action even closer to theater-goers. And that’s not to mention the gallant stools, seats that are actually on stage and so close that one is in danger of being used as a prop in the play. Second, the actors are true professionals, many of them members of Actors’ Equity, the union for actors. They are highly trained and experienced and they are a joy to watch. And third, most of the actors are also fabulous musicians, and an ASC performance includes a concert before the show and during the intermission.  (The music is so great, the resident and touring companies put together a “greatest hits” concert once a year to help raise money for the theater.)

We are extremely fortunate to have the ASC here in Staunton, and it benefits us in other ways, too. Many theater-goers are from out of town. Their presence means business for hotels and restaurants, and as a result, we have a thriving dining scene, stronger than other cities our size. I, for one, am grateful.

Full disclosure: In November of last year, I was elected to the Board of Trustees of the ASC, largely because I was a fan and cheerleader for the theater. I’m honored to serve!

Back to VCCA

Toward the end of last year, I had a long writing residency at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the conclusion of which I wrote about here: End of Residency Blues. While that month was wonderful, it also had its frustrations, generating doubts about the project I was working on.

Over the weeks that followed, I had a chance to think about writing goals for 2018, which I wrote about here: 2018 Writing Goals. People who read about my goals confirmed what I already knew: they were terribly ambitious. But less than six weeks into the year, I’m feeling pretty good about them.

For one thing, I finished selecting the 20 short stories that will make up the anthology I’m editing, Volume III of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. There’s still a lot of work to be done (contracting, editing, formatting, publicity, etc.), but we’re easily on track for publication in the fall.

Another goal was to finish a story collection I was working on. I had thought about hiding out in the mountains at a B&B to focus on that, but a different opportunity knocked: a chance to return to VCCA for a short residency. While my last residency of a full month was my longest ever, this five-day stay is my shortest, but it has been incredibly productive. I’ve finished several stories for the new collection—they were already begun and in draft form—and I should be able to complete the manuscript in the next couple of weeks, before my self-imposed deadline of March 1. I’m very excited about that and look forward to submitting some of those stories to magazines and the whole manuscript to publishers in the near future. The image above is my studio, W5, also known as the “corn crib.” Very funky, but it has served me well.

With those two major projects in hand, I’ve begun to turn my thoughts back to the novel that had been frustrating me during my last residency. I have some ideas for restructuring what I have so far, and I’m hopeful that will give me the momentum I need to reach the finish line (“The End”) later this year.

So this residency, despite being extremely short, has been highly productive. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here.

(If you are a writer, visual artist, or composer and have not yet done a residency at VCCA, consider applying. Go here for more information.)

The Omnivorous Reader

I grew up in small cities in the Midwest, in a pretty typical middle-class home. Both of my parents worked, but somehow we managed to have a full, together-at-the-dining-table dinner most nights (thanks, Mom!). My mother liked to cook, she said—she claimed she read cookbooks the way other people read novels—but I don’t recall all that much variety in our menu. Fried chicken. Hamburgers. Spaghetti. Something she called “campfire stew,” which I loved. Basic, wholesome stuff. No complaints from me. Not many, anyway. I refused to eat liver or Brussels sprouts, and my sister got my share of the acorn squash.

My diet didn’t change much when I went to college. My fraternity had a cook, Mattie, with a repertoire even more limited than my mother’s—mac and cheese, chili, fish sticks. Certainly nothing exotic. The only item I even remember from those years is something we called “Mattie brownies,” massive slabs of baked, chocolatey sweetness. Yum. When I began graduate school, I lived in the grad student dorm. They probably tried to liven up the menu with “international” choices—maybe chow mein or tacos—but if they did I don’t remember, and it’s almost certain that any such items were toned down for the average palate of rural, Midwestern America.

All of which is to say, for the first 22 years of my life, I was not an adventurous eater.

But in January of 1976 that changed when I boarded a plane bound for Seoul, Korea to serve in the Peace Corps. My first taste of Korean food was in San Francisco where our service group gathered for pre-departure briefings. Not everyone in our group liked it, but I did, for reasons I couldn’t then explain. I was just ready for a new experience, I guess, and the unfamiliar food was the first manifestation of that experience. Upon arrival in Seoul, where there was no turning back, and then at our training site down-country, we had to eat Korean food (or Korean versions of Chinese food) or starve, basically, because even in metropolitan Seoul in 1976 there were not many other affordable options. But that was fine with me. Bulgogi, kimchi, and bibimbap were just fine with me. Over the next two years of working in a provincial capital city in Korea’s “rice bowl,” famous for its food, I came to love the cuisine. It’s still my favorite. (If someone opened a Korean restaurant near me, I guarantee I’d be one of their best customers.)

Since then, I’ve been exposed to many different kinds of foods, mostly Asian because I spent most of my legal career working in East Asia but dishes from other parts of the world, too. I love to travel and I love to eat, so it’s a good combination.

But not everyone has such a broad appetite. You don’t like Pad Thai? Or Beef Rendang? Far be it from me to judge your tastes. I still won’t eat liver, although at this point I’ve come to love Brussels sprouts and squash. Taste is a curious thing.

Which brings me to literature. (You knew I was headed there, right?)

If you are a woman and you prefer to read only books by women, that’s okay with me. I believe you might find that you’d also like some work by men if you gave it a read, but I won’t judge. Some men say they don’t read books by women. I find that curious since some of my favorite writers are women, but again I’m not going to judge.

Maybe these prejudices are in reality matters of genre, not gender. My father, who spent his whole career as an automotive parts salesman, liked to read Westerns. Most such books are by men, I think, or at least they were while my father was alive. My mother read some literary fiction by both men and women, but mostly she read romance novels, probably by women. It used to be that war novels were written by and read mostly by men. Thrillers, too, although that has changed, as discussed below. Mysteries have long been written by both men and women, although I have the impression that many of the modern superstars of the genre are women. Although the category is in dispute, publishers market some work as “women’s fiction,” and not surprisingly these titles are mostly by women. (I did a cursory online search for statistics to bolster my impressions and didn’t find anything, so take these assertions for what they’re worth.)

As an aside, publishing industry bias is obviously a factor in the gender/genre puzzle. There has long been a perception that the industry was biased in favor of male writers, so much so that women adopted male or gender-less pseudonyms in order to gain publication and readership. It’s possible that the pendulum has swung the other way at this point, as this recent article suggests: Why Men Pretend to be Women to Sell Thrillers.

The question I am struggling to get to is this: How widely should we read?

The question, of course, is huge. There is the issue of gender. If I read mostly work by men, should I make an effort to read more women? There is genre. If I read mostly literary fiction, should I read more genre work—mysteries, thrillers, young adult? There is also culture, which I’ve not mentioned until now. If I read mostly work by white writers, should I be intentional about reading work by writers of color?

The answer depends, I think, on who you are and why you read in the first place. I don’t blame my father for reading mostly books by men or my mother for reading mostly books by women. They were both busy people who read primarily for escape, and the genres that appealed to them were dominated by writers of one gender. I recently saw an article online by a woman who was upset with her date when he revealed that he read only books by men. Now, I can understand if this woman might choose not to go out with this guy again solely because of his narrow choice of reading material, but I don’t think it makes him a bad person, just not the right guy for her. I’m happy to discover that people read anything at all, frankly, given the studies that show reading on the decline. Books are like food (you knew I was going to circle back eventually, right?) and taste is personal. Not everyone likes kimchi, although I think it’s awesome. You only read work by writers who are like you? Can’t say I blame you, even though you’re missing out on some pretty great writing.

I read like I eat—whatever is handy. Nonfiction, novels, short stories. The fiction I read is balanced between the genders, although not with great intentionality. (If I realize that the last couple of books I’ve read are by men I might choose a book by a woman next and vice versa, but I don’t give it much more thought than that.) I also try to make sure I’m reading writers of color, although I have had to make more of an effort there. Because of my interest in Asia, I do seem to read a fair number of Asian and Asian American writers, but I could do better when it comes to African American and Hispanic writers. Most of my non-fiction reading is dictated by my book club’s choices, but we (an even mix of men and women) do try to balance genders and read some books by writers of color. Most of the fiction I read is literary, but I will occasionally read a mystery or thriller if the writing is good. I’ve read a few young adult books in recent years, too, because good writing shows up everywhere. (Having said that the only Westerns I’m likely to read will be by the likes of Cormac McCarthy, and I don’t foresee any romance novels in my future. Nor will I be reading Christian fiction, Zombie/Werewolf fiction, etc. Just not my thing.)

As a writer, my reading is about learning, not escape. I’m not only hoping to improve my craft through exposure to successful work, I’m hoping to open my mind to ideas and experiences in the world. That means reading more than just writers who look like me or come from my background. Still, it’s a question of taste. I’m omnivorous, but I understand those who are not.

For more thoughts on the subject, I recommend: 12 Reasons Reading Widely is Important.