I bought this book a few years ago for a creative writing class at CSUB; most of the non-fiction on my shelves seems to be there for similar reasons. I only skimmed Reading Like a Writer while taking the class, as I was far more interested in Austerlitz (the novel by W.G. Sebald that we were studying) and the writing workshops, since I was fortunate to be in a pretty good group. Since I’ve been doing much more reading as well as writing this year, I thought it might prove useful to read this guide from the beginning.
Prose’s nonfiction writing is workmanlike and instructive. Her love of literature is palpable and contagious. She draws from a diverse selection of stories and novels and provides quality excepts from those texts to illustrate the points she is making. Like Prose, I have little patience for someone who wants to create artistically without being “corrupted” by study of the greats. Good writers read. They read a lot and they read studiously. I don’t care for some of the writers she uses, (Henry Green just isn’t my cup of tea) but that’s an entirely subjective complaint, and she makes valid points with those examples nonetheless.
Some reviewers have complained about a certain staid, old-guard/New York tone, and while I understand where they are coming from, the book more than fulfills its function. I’m as bothered by the prissy safety of the New Yorker as much as anyone, but they manage to publish some powerful fiction and intelligent articles in spite of it. The quality of the work always comes first. Recommended, both for writers and non-writing lovers of literature.
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Full disclosure: John Darnielle is one of my favorite living artists and the frontman of the incredibly prolific band The Mountain Goats. If you haven’t already listened to them, stop reading this and do that instead (I recommend something off Tallahassee or Transcendental Youth). That said, this novel stands on its own merit just fine. It’s by far the best book released in the last few years (that I’ve read), and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2014.
It’s a hard book to talk about without compromising its narrative integrity, but it deals with the power of imagination, the frenetic energy of youth, and the refuge of the creative process, giving full attention to both the joy in those things and their dangerous reciprocal. It’s a book about the intimate connections we make with the people around us without realizing it and it’s a book about fantasy games, Conan the Barbarian, God-and-Satan and the people who try to take a side in that.
It’s also the most emotionally affecting book I’ve read in years. As redemptive as it is, Darnielle goes to some dark places that are made all the more unsettling by their believability. He finds beautiful truth in the most overlooked aspects of the way human beings treat each other and also illuminates the parts of myself that I don’t want to look at or remember. Recommended, as highly as possible. If you read no other fiction this year, read this.
I heard one of the stories from Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son on either Selected Shorts or the New Yorker’s short story podcast, I can’t remember which. I was in Beijing in early February, walking about a mile in the snow to take a bus to go to a subway to meet a friend at a hostel near the center of the city. After that, I kept my eye out at used bookstores with no luck.
Five months later I was working in a frozen food warehouse and a co-worker told me there was a box of books he was getting rid of in his truck. I picked this up, along with a handful of others. It’s not considered one of his best, but it’s one of the better books I’ve read this year.
At 129 pages, it’s hardly a heavyweight, but it reads slowly. The prose is remarkable on a sentence level, deliberate and powerful. I found some of the tropes to be irritating (older professor working in academia encounters a beautiful-but crazy art undergrad who seems so much more alive than he is), but so little of the impact of this book derives from plot anyway. Highly recommended, but maybe check out Jesus’s Son, or Train Dreams if this is your first encounter with Johnson.
For the moment, I’ll be using this site as an online reading log, but I’ll also be posting links to various creative endeavors, along with short essays and various thoughts.