Reflections on the private MFA, year 1 (part 3.5): the reading list, with commentary

If you’re a writer, a reader, here’s what I’ve been reading for my own private MFA, year 1, with commentary. The books don’t make a lot of sense together, except that the list means that I have read for myself this year more than I have in a long time. And maybe that’s an accomplishment, in itself.


I think it’s safe to say that I’ve read more nonfiction in this last year than I usually do. Novels are the bread-and-butter of my reading diet, or if you’re me, the rice. Nonfiction was a category I rarely touched, a whole section of the library that I rarely visited until graduate school, where literary theory, ethnic studies, and food studies (and food literature) really entered the menu. It’s still not the first section of the bookstore that I’ll visit, but I no longer avoid it like the plague.

  • The Brief Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks*, Rebecca Skloot. An amazing feat of science writing, journalistic reporting, memoir that travels fluently between several time periods. If you haven’t read it yet, pick it up; you’ll probably be shocked at what you probably didn’t know. It took Skloot something like 10 years to research and write the book, and I can see why. Side literary note: she cited Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes as an influence for her own book’s structure.
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Chip and Dan Heath. I thought I’d be reading this book as a career changer, and in some respects it’s been useful. But I found their lessons highly memorable and applicable in settings from teaching freshman composition to political change and policy creation. Perhaps a bit too business-oriented for me?–but an entertaining and provocative read.
  • One Person/Multiple Careers, Marci Alboher. Another useful read for career changers. Some useful suggestions and inspiring examples, but not as memorable as the Heaths’ book.
  • My Reading Life, Pat Conroy. As a novelist, Conroy has hit some of the same notes far too often for me, but his appreciation of food and his zest for storytelling can draw me back in spite of myself. This memoir is Conroy’s set of love letters to some of his most influential books, and as a fellow lifelong passionate reader it’s fun to see how he approaches each book or author with reverence or nostalgia or hero-worship.
  • The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown. I really love this author’s speeches on TEDtalks. For those who are drawn to her material there–with all due respect, because I really do think her work is valuable–I’d suggest sticking to the talks. Part memoir, part advice–this book felt to me like the PowerPoint slides without as much of the author’s engaging and compelling presence.
  • The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp. I liked this book more as a memoir than as a writing/creative advice manual, but I think I am not quite her audience. I don’t think I need to be convinced to be creative, or that creativity is valuable and part of everyday life. But, I appreciate her willingness to include so many people and activities as “creative.”
  • On Writing, Stephen King.* This book surprised me in so many good ways. Because I don’t really like the genres that King uses typically (horror, noir), I don’t read his work very often. But this book reminded me that he is a master storyteller, and some of the memoir sections told me about why he writes in the genres that he does. I found myself wanting to keep my library copy; it’s a book that I could see myself returning to over and over again. A great precursor to Victor LaValle’s work (more on that in a minute).
  • The Writing Life, Annie Dillard. A lovely set of meditations on the writing life–not really Dillard’s life, necessarily–but a set of gentle suggestions or mantras about how to approach life as a writer and working artist. One of my favorite moments in the book involves seclusion and fireworks.


As always, so many good books, so little time. I don’t think this list is complete, but it’s a good sampling of what I read this year (except for the books that I like to reread). Sometimes I become too ambitious and order a whole slew of books at once from the library and can’t read them all in time. I’ll tell you this, though: my 50-page rule still holds. (If the author doesn’t have me by page 50, I will usually not finish the book. See the first sentence of this paragraph.)

  • Honoring Juanita, Hans Ostrom. My good friend and colleague wrote this historical novel, cheap ventolin online based on events in the Sierra Nevada. Sometimes it’s hard to shake the author’s presence from fiction when you know the author, but Mary Bluestone’s voice is engaging and the novel’s exploration of the aftermath of historical figures made me think quite a bit.
  • The Atlas of Love, Laurie Frankel. Another colleague wrote this lovely book about “atypical” forms of family, friendships, and love. Readers who have gone to graduate school in the humanities will especially appreciate this warmhearted book and its engaging narrator, Janey.
  • Big Machine, Victor LaValle. One of the craziest books I’ve read in a while, but I want so many more people to read it. Both page-turning and experimental: a huge accomplishment in itself. Stephen King (horror) crossed with Ralph Ellison (modernist experiments with race) and Haruki Murakami (magical realism) and James Weldon Johnson (deep knowledge of racial politics). And set partly in the Bay Area, home of my homes. I kept thinking, “No, you can’t do that! or go there”–and he kept doing it. Go read it, please, so we can talk about it together.
  • Great House, Nicole Krauss. Krauss has gorgeous prose. I found myself writing down bits of wisdom from the book, short lines and quotations. But I never quite felt that this novel came together as I felt it should. Four narrators/narratives, all centered around a single object: a writer’s desk (think The Red Violin in novel form).
  • Pictures of You, Caroline Leavitt. After I became pregnant with my first daughter, it was hard to read anything where bad things happened to children. (Exponentially so now that both of my daughters are here.) Thus, Leavitt’s novel was an emotional test for me: can I read a novel where bad things happen to children, and the bad thing is the death of a parent? Yes, I can, but not without difficulty. More about this in a later post.
  • Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay. Outing myself as a fantasy/historical fantasy reader, since junior high school. I don’t read very much of it anymore but Kay, I think, is one of the very best. He rarely sacrifices character development for plot, when so many in this genre seem to do the reverse. This novel’s set in China, around the time of the Tang dynasty, involving an impossible and terribly consequential gift.
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans. I had to take this book back to the library because I wasn’t quite in the mood for it (read: it made me sad), but I admired Evans’s craft. I’d like to revisit the collection someday.
  • A Thread Of Sky, Deanna Fei. Some important (and highly readable) work here if you are interested in transnational relationships between Asia and America and immigrants. Five main characters, all with large and looming issues, made this novel at times overly ambitious, but it provides an important crash course in a number of Asian American issues.
  • Take Me Home, Brian Leung. I was excited to read Leung’s historical novel set in Wyoming in the 19th century, about  Chinese immigrants and the Rock Springs massacre. Not many have ventured into historical fictional territory (ha) with this incident, if any. I am hoping my scholarly friends in Asian American Studies and American Literature will pick this one up.
  • Skippy Dies, Paul Murray. Amazing prose, well-drawn characters, hilarious at points–and yet, as with a number of postmodern pyrotechnics, the ending did not satisfy me.
  • The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Eugenia Kim. A staggering feat of feminist historical fiction, especially given Kim’s audience and what we would probably (not) know about twentieth-century Korean history and the Japanese occupation. I was awed. I loved the narrator and the narrator’s mother, and I wanted to know what would happen to them both.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith. This book is a classic, I know, but I did not read it until this year. It was startlingly honest about maternal love, about tenement poverty, about adultery and about female adolescence. You probably wouldn’t get away with publishing this book as a “coming of age” Young Adult novel today, and yet in so many ways that’s exactly what it is, the prototype for the female bildungsroman all the way up to The House on Mango Street and beyond. I am still thinking through this book’s honesty.

I had a number of “books I like to reread,” but I’ll save that for another post, another time.  I am working on Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone, and I just picked up The Tragedy of Arthur. Have a good weekend. I hope you’re able to enjoy some reading time.

(Approximately) Five Questions About Writing, History, & Technology: Hans Ostrom

With the shift in new routines, I’m missing a few things that I know the non-private MFA would offer: externally-imposed structure and accountability. But! I’m a Capricorn, as I’ve said, and usually good with internally-imposed deadlines.

So with the beginning of a new school year, it’s time for a new assignment. To help with more regular posts, I’m introducing a new occasional feature here: a series of short interviews with writers, historians, and anyone else who’s interested in questions of writing, history, technology, and memory.

Today’s inaugural series post is a short interview with my good friend and colleague, Hans Ostrom. One of my favorite stories about Hans is our very first meeting. I’d done some research before we met, and saw that we’d gone to the same high school. I realized that my high school principal also had the same last name, and so I asked Hans if they were related. Hans raised his eyebrows, dropped his jaw, turned slightly paler, and actually dropped the paper he was holding. My high school principal was (is) Hans’s older brother. Hans and I have worked together now for almost seven years.


KikuGirl (KG): In the “customary” Google/Wikipedia search, I couldn’t find any interviews with you! Are you that reclusive? Has anyone called you the J.D. Salinger of Tacoma, or Sierra City, where you grew up?

Hans Ostrom (HO): Ah, this one is easy. There are no interviews because no one has been interested in interviewing me.  I like the interview as a genre, and I don’t mind being interviewed.  One problem, if it’s a problem, is that I have written in a bunch of genres—poetry, fiction, scholarship, criticism, journalism, textbooks, encyclopedias, blogging, etc.  I think if I’d decided on one thing early on, I might be better known as a writer of that thing—be it poetry or mystery novels or whatever.  But I love to try different kinds of writing. I would say I’m solitary—writing-groups, for instance, have not worked for me, and I’m terrible at literary politics—rubbing elbows, going to the right conferences, etc.  So by default, not really design, I’m a lone wolf and a contrarian. But I’m not reclusive, and  always thought Salinger was simply bizarre.  Whereas I’m simply obscure.  I think bizarre pays better.

KG: Speaking of all of that writing: you write and publish more, both in hard-copy print and online, than just about anyone I know. (Maybe you’re the Joyce Carol Oates of the West Coast.) In addition to the multiple, regularly-updated blogs, there’s the edited encyclopedia of African American literature, there’s the poetry collection, the textbooks about creative writing, the scholarly studies, the detective novel, and probably a whole other set of writings I haven’t discovered yet. How do you produce so much, so consistently?

HO: I’m probably a compulsive writer.  Not an obsessive one, but a compulsive one.  I just love to write, so I write more or less all the time—in waiting rooms, in bed, sometimes while watching TV.  I do very well with deadlines, which are a kind of drug for compulsive writers.  This all may have started at community college, where I had a full-time academic schedule, worked as an R.A., and wrote sports articles for local newspapers.  This required multitasking and writing quickly.  So I just tend to plunge in and write and then see what I have later, as opposed to a lot of planning, outlining, etc.—although these are often necessary, too.  And one genre tends to carom off the other, so in the midst of an  encyclopedia entry, you might get an idea for a poem.  [KG: I love this idea.] Writing is probably also my way of processing the world, perhaps of coping.

KG: In your historical novel Honoring Juanita, there are several metaphors for history. There’s the standard history as “the dusty, distant past”; history as the recurring, haunting Juanita; history as the origin of objects (the ventolin buy online trees that the main character, Mary, uses in her woodcarvings); history as sedimented levels of trees and nature. What did writing historical fiction do for you that reading written histories might not have?

Mary is a kind of poet, and I think poets are mad to make history “real”: palpable, something you can touch and smell.  Of course, this is impossible, as history is past, is gone.  Its effects aren’t gone, but it is, so it always exists once or twice removed. Perhaps my favorite metaphor is the sediment/compost one, history as a slow building up, an accumulation, something that feeds the present, for better or worse—good compost vs. unhealthy compost. A woodcarver, Mary wants to get her hands on Juanita, but of course she can’t.

KG: Elsewhere, you’ve written about the Kindle and e-books, and you (like I) have lived from dial phones to IPhones. How do you think these forms of digital technologies will impact our reading habits, and our memories?

HO: I think they are revolutionizing reading and writing—right now.  And this will only accelerate.  There’s something called “Moore’s law,” which is that micro-chip storage capacity doubles every 12-24 months.  I think you’re seeing an erosion, even a collapse, of publishing hierarchies.  Vested interests need to try to prevent this from happening, but I don’t know if they can. We could be witnessing a vast democratization of writing and publishing, and I love it.  The old way depended upon an economy of false scarcity, which is reinforced by rigid ideas of “genius,” by making art mysterious (“it can’t be taught”), a fixed canon, only so many slots open for “great” writers, etc.  Many people are nostalgic for this setup, but I’m not.  Interestingly, you can archive books with Amazon  after you’ve read them on Kindle, so there is a chance that people will leave their Kindles to their children—a library of hundreds of books, maybe thousands, if we go by Moore’s number.  Few saw this coming.  Huge personal libraries owned by everyday folk.  At the same time, we may also be entering an era in which most people don’t have the patience to read for a long time or to read complex things.  Don’t get me wrong—I love books as books, as artifacts, but I also love these new developments.  It’s not an either/or question for me.

KG: What’s your favorite metaphor for history, or your favorite quotation about it, and why?

HO: The compost one I mentioned. I think maybe another expression would be “a necessary illusion.”  That is, history represents what is gone, but we need an illusion of its still being there, so we continually create  illusions of past—in our personal lives, in history books, in the media (“founding fathers,” “the greatest generation”).

Where history is still alive is its effects, and oddly enough, people are often reticent to accept that reality; thus the U.S. has never fully come to terms with the effects of  slavery, for example (just one example—there are many).  A kind of deep denial festers, therefore—and you see it coming out in the overreaction to Obama’s being elected.  He is as moderate as Eisenhower, but confused racist reactions drive people to make him some kind of Other—socialist, Kenyan, proto-dictator.

I can’t think of a favorite quotation, but I’m sure it would be something  ironic, something to let the pretentious steam out of history.  There’s probably one from Wilde or Twain.


I’m honored—and frankly, surprised—to note that this is Hans’s first interview. And it’s my first written interview, too. Many thanks to Hans for being the first contestant, and for playing along.

Writing, history, and technology are going to be important in my book, so these interviews are also a form of research. If you know anyone who would be interested in being interviewed for this series, please send me a message at kikugirl (at) kikugirl dot net.

Summer reading lists, 2010

Recently completed reading

  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
  • Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby
  • The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp
  • Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Reading right now (In media re[ad]s)

  • War Dances, by Sherman Alexie
  • The Calligrapher’s Daughter, by Eugenia Kim
  • The Guardians, by Ana Castillo

Reading returned to the library, without reading in its entirety

  • South of Broad, by Pat Conroy (I like his books, but tire of his one protagonist with the same mother issues.)
  • Sparkle Life, by Kara Lindstrom (Beware the book that needs “sex” on its book jacket description, twice.)

Reading on the bedside table: on deck

  • The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee
  • Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, by David Mura
  • Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich

Reading that may require more quiet and commitment than I’ve got right now (and that I hope to get to eventually)

  • Baltasar and Blimunda, by José Saramago
  • The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Reading I haven’t bought yet

  • The Stieg generic ventolin albuterol Larsson novels (anyone want to loan me these?)
  • I-Hotel, by Karen Tei Yamashita
  • Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain

On my hold list at the library

  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

A few favorite rereadings in bits and pieces:

  • Three Junes, by Julia Glass
  • The Sum of Our Days, by Isabel Allende
  • Comfort Me With Apples, by Ruth Reichl

Books to reread soon for the book project

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Books to buy soon

  • Honoring Juanita, by Hans Ostrom
  • The Atlas of Love, by Laurie Frankel

A bit of recommended online reading

I’m happy to answer questions or comment more on any of these, by request. And you? (as Shauna likes to ask) What do your summer reading lists look like?