Summer 2015: Books I’ve Read and Books I’ve Been Working On

Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector

I want to share some thoughts on what I read this summer, just so you know what writers do with all that spare time they have. At the end of this essay I also report on some of the stuff I have been working on.

This was my first summer being an empty nest writer. For the record, half of what writers do is read each other’s work. That’s probably why the job seems so great every once in a while.

My goodness, there is so much brilliant literature coming out these days — particularly by women. Beginning in July, I stumbled into all sorts of work by Renata Adler, Joy Williams, Cesar Aira, Shirley Jackson, Elena Ferrante, Mat Johnson, Lucia Berlin, Roxane Gay, and  Clarice Lispector (she who barks at God, see photo above). All of these folks are pushing language and literature forward. We worry, [Read more…]

All the Light We Cannot See: A Quick Review

allthelight-209x300There’s no question that Tony Doerr is one of our most lyrical and thoughtful writers. If you haven’t read any of his work, I highly recommend his two collections of stories as a good place to start:

The Shell Collector (Scribner, 2001)

Memory Wall (Scribner, 2010)

I just finished his award winning new novel All the Light We Cannot See last night. I stayed up late reading in bed to finish the final 100 pages. The novel weaves two young people’s stories together during World War II. Werner is a young German orphan genius with a penchant for radio tweaking and communications hacking. Marie-Laure is a blind French girl whose father is the lock master in a museum in Paris. Both young people must deal with the utter horror of that war of wars, and the reader must go through the grueling trials and tribulations with them. We know it is inevitable that they meet. A great deal is inevitable in any story about [Read more…]

Thank-You for Making Your Broken Bird World

Yesterday I bid adieu to my Facebook wall and all the people who live there (for as long as I can, I think).

It felt really interesting to wake up this morning. That strange convolution was no longer tangled up inside my skull, cloaking my brain. What a strange thing not to realize every day for seven years.

So, maybe, it’s back to communicating the way I used to. The poem below is adapted from a letter to a friend I shall miss daily now, because Facebook isn’t bad, it’s just there and it makes using words easier than maybe using them should be.

Thank-you for Making Your Broken-Bird World

(For Nancy Anonymous)
Your land of broken birds is a set of 
427 switches 
So delightfully random yet crafted
As if out of scented wax, feathers, 
Star crusts and weed flowers. 
The effect of reading them is the same 
Effect you'd get in a deep forest 
When you find a lever on a tree 
That you click up and down really fast 
To the point where you don't know if it's 
Your eyes fluttering open and shut, or 
The whole world is flickering and you're 
The only one that notices 
Because, of course, the biggest problem 
In life is getting so used to things that go 
On and off people take them for granted
Or let them become boring, like love, it seems now,
Which is why I stand with my hand on the lever
And why your work is so important. 
This is what you have called 
A Broken-Bird World. Right?

Divesting in Trustee Wussyness: College Campuses and Climate Change Action

Climate Divestment Whose Side

This spring Swarthmore College’s students, alumni and faculty stood up to demand that the school’s Board of Managers (their trustees) divest funding in fossil fuel businesses and technologies. I reported on that here in “The State of the War on Climate Change” a few weeks ago. The Board of Managers voted down that option just days later.

What I also reported on in that essay was that this is just the beginning of campus actions to divest in [Read more…]

The State of the War on Climate Change: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Bill McKibben (Source:

Bill McKibben (Source:

Talking Writing magazine just posted an interview I did with climate activist and environmental journalist Bill McKibben called “We Don’t Require Leaders.” I urge you to go check it out. McKibben surprised me with some of his answers. The whole climate equation and how it impacts culture and politics is not simple or predictable.

I did a lot of research for my interview. You can never get in all your questions. Nor can you make all the points you want to make in your interview introduction. I want to add a bit here, then, if that’s okay. It’s my contribution this week to what will likely otherwise be a finger snapping coverage of Earth Day by mainstream media. [Read more…]

No Translation Possible: On Reading Roberto Bolaño

“Nothing happened today. And if anything did, I’d rather not talk about it, because I didn’t understand it.”
– Roberto Bolaño, “The Savage Detectives” 


Patti Smith with a Roberto Bolaño portrait

Patti Smith with a Roberto Bolaño portrait

I have discovered the work of Chilean poet/novelist/essayist, Roberto Bolaño, in the past year. For years I stayed away from this dude because it seemed like he was probably one of those difficult writers who made a reader’s journey very time consuming and dicey. Boy, was I wrong!

I want to admit here first that I’m mesmerized by what Bolaño produced in his all too short career. I can’t say I’m an addict, but I do love reading pretty much anything he’s ever written. The experience is uncanny. He tends not to overload [Read more…]

“Natural Symbols”: On the Brutality of Popular Opinion and Why You Think You’re Always Right

Mary Douglas, Anthropologist

Mary Douglas, Anthropologist

Anthropologist Mary Douglas published a book called Natural Symbols 45 years ago. It’s a gateway into thinking about how individuals encode their perceptions of reality through the complex cosmology of cultural symbols they live in — bodily or “natural” symbols in particular. The idea of the book was to develop a way of talking about how well the individual is integrated into society.  Social integration is the idea of “order” that each of us carries with us everyday. In a nutshell, she was at play with the ideas of taboo and purity. These are at the root of everything. Either you love and embrace things or you hate and reject them. And you tend to learn these from society at large.

Ya’ think that’s some boring shit? Well, maybe, except when you actually try to understand what the hell is going on in the world today.

What we just went through last fall, standing in little pockets around the country in judgment of police in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island was an extreme case of how “natural symbols” work in real life. There was a huge amount of emotion attached to these two [Read more…]

“Writing Blue Highways”: My Interview with William Least Heat-Moon

William Least Heat-Moon (Photo Credit: Dave Leiker,

Credit: Dave Leiker,

Over at Talking Writing they just posted an interview I did with the great American travel writer and chronicler of deep culture, William Least Heat-Moon. I had a lot of fun researching and preparing for this Q&A session. I think Bill had a good time answering my questions.

We talk about his newest book, the need to write with care, book categories, and digital publishing, among other things. Here’s a snip from my introduction. You can read the whole piece over at TW right now. Just follow the link at the end of this cut.

I highly recommend purchasing Writing Blue Highways and Blue Highways itself as holiday gifts this year. These are true examples of great writing by one of this country’s most distinguished bards.

William Least Heat-Moon: “Damnable Speed”

TW Interview by David Biddle

December 10, 2014

In 1982, the Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown published Blue Highways: A Journey into America. It’s William Least Heat-Moon’s account of a three-month, 14,000-mile road trip he took in a converted mini-van he called Ghost Dancing. Heat-Moon drove the back roads designated as blue lines in his Rand McNally Atlas.

Blue Highways surprised the publishing world. It was hard to categorize yet sat on the bestseller list for nearly a year. Part social history, part travel writing, and part spiritual odyssey, Blue Highways offers tales of America’s forgotten “outback” and the people still connected to that fading world. The writing is lyrical, full of life lessons, and informed by a strong environmental ethic. Heat-Moon went on to publish many other works, including the recent An Osage Journey to Europe, 1827-1830, coauthored with James K. Wallace (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

His latest project is Writing Blue Highways (University of Missouri Press, 2014). It’s an autobiographical tale of the trials and tribulations of a then-unknown author struggling through nearly four years to write (and rewrite ten-plus different times) an acceptable manuscript for publication. But more important, Writing Blue Highways is also the definitive story of how a work of literary art, from conception to publication, comes to be. Read the rest in Talking Writing’s Holiday Issue 2014.

“Magical Thinking” Without Defining Writing Talent

JohnGardner Art of Ficion Cover

Not the cover you usually see for this great book.

Over at The Millions Michael Bourne (the writer, not the center fielder) has an essay this week called “Magical Thinking: Talent and the Cult of Craft.” Lots of great comments and thinking come after his pretty thoughtful exploration of the question of success in the writing world: Talent? or Craft?

Bourne makes a good case against this statement in John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction:

“[T]he truth is that though the ability to write well is partly a gift — like the ability to play basketball well or outguess the stock market — writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing.”

Maybe Bourne lays it on a little thick about the problem of writers leaning a bit too heavily on the idea of studying the mechanics of good writing and storytelling (especially in MFA and college creative writing programs). I didn’t really pay much attention to that side of the equation. The idea of “talent” just really struck me. There’s no question [Read more…]

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