Monthly Archives: June 2009

Why We Read

imagesSummer is soon upon us and the issue of summer reading has again raised its head in the magazines and newspapers that, in an effort to stem the tide of irrelevancy, eagerly provide a list of books that must be on our bedside table as the evenings grow longer. They promise their recommendations will allow us to get lost in the dream of the narrative (and thereby lose our interest in the mendacity and/or trauma of daily news, am I the only one to see the irony of this?).

But what is summer reading? Is it different in some appreciable way from winter reading? Lighter, less literary, more guilty pleasure? The very idea of summer reading harkens back to a time when we spent our winters struggling through the subtext of the Scarlet Letter or some other “classic” anticipating the day we would be lounging by the pool with Danielle Steel or to be more au courant, Nora Roberts. This implies that reading is work, or at least a certain kind of reading. For me, reading was never a summer occupation. It has always been a year round sport. I am as likely to read a sci-fi thriller in December as I am to delve into Faulkner in July.

Which leads me to my next question: why do we read? Is it simply to escape the reality of our daily lives, boring for some and far too dramatic for others? Or does reading fill some deeper yearning, some need to find connection, to dance across the boundaries of our souls and touch and be touched by another? There have been passages in novels and short stories that have more than moved me. They have assured me that I am not alone, that someone has felt as I have felt, someone has struggled as I have struggled, someone has desired as I have desired. If the loss of heaven is the corporeal reality of human life, then reading affords me great hope that transcendence has not been forsaken but simply postponed.

And so, here is my list of what to read this summer, this fall, this winter and spring. Enjoy.

Short Stories (in order of preference):
“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx
“Hateship, Friendship, Courtship. Loveship, Marriage” by Alice Munro
“Bablyon Revisted” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor
“Old Boys, Old Girls” by Edward P. Jones
“Xmas, Jamaica Plain” by Melanie Rae Thon
“A Distant Episode” by Paul Bowles
“Why Don’t You Dance” by Raymond Carver
“It Wasn’t Proust” by Sam Shepard

Short Story Collections:

Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

The Shell Collector by Athony Doerr
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Boat by Nam Le
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
Runaway by Alice Munro
Enormous Changes At The Last Minute by Grace Paley

Fiction Since 1960:
(Edited from a class taught by the incomparable Cynthia Nixon)

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Maquez
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (which can’t be fully appreciated without a reread of the sister novel, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Old School by Tobias Wolff

What Will I Be Reading This Summer?

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
Blindness by Jose Saramago
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

Me and Gloria, We’re like that…


Me and Gloria

Me and Gloria

I had breakfast with Gloria Steinem the other day. No really, I did. With Gloria and three hundred other women who paid far too much money hoping that a few flying cells of her DNA might dance by on the breeze. There, on the off chance they might swallow and absorb even the most minute elements of her wisdom, her experience, her courage.


For nearly a decade now I have co-hosted an annual event, bringing speakers of interest to the doyennes Silicon Valley. Let’s be clear, I couldn’t point out a doyenne for the life of me. But, as a member of the Planned Parenthood Golden Gate affiliate Board of Trustees, I am responsible for helping to raise funds. Given that I live in the seat of some of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, an event that enlightens, inspires, and engages my “friends” with money, is not a bad thing. And truth be known, there is a little Atherton Girl in me who loves to see the latest fashions up close and personal. I may not be able to afford those $1,000 Loubatin shoes or the $5,000 Burkin bag but it is more fun to see them in (or rather, on) person than through the latest Vogue fashion spread or sneaking a peak at Gossip Girl on TV.

Gloria (we are now on a first name basis) spoke and fielded questions for over an hour. During that time, she took us on a journey of recent history reminding us of what it was like for our older sisters and mothers who did not live with the presumption of reproductive freedom. She traced the economic, political, and social oppression that women experience when our biological imperatives are controlled by others. As we traveled across cultures and history, I marveled that she was able to bring it all back to right here, right now. She made us laugh, she shocked us, and she challenged us to take action: to model for the next generation what she continues to model for us.

As she spoke, I looked around the room, a sea of blond, blow-dried hair straightened to ensure that not a curl was out of place, and I wondered, do these women hear her? Is she connecting? Does a feminist from the 1970’s really speak the truth for women in their forties whose biggest struggle is getting Chad into private school and making sure that the house remodel is done on time so that they can enjoy their vacation sailing off the coast of Turkey.  I could not help but feel cynical. But in watching the other guests, I noticed that as her talk unfolded, they sat up a little taller, clapped a little louder, and laughed in unison affirming all that she shared. I realized these women, as challenged as they may be by the constraints of too much wealth (yeah, I know, nice problem to have), yearn as we all do to find meaning. The gift Gloria gave that morning to the wealthy women of Silicon Valley is the notion that while they may not be changing the world as they remodel our homes, their acts of everyday rebellion are important and valid.  She reminded the room that mountains are built one pebble at a time and despite this economy, the checks rolled in.

Icons are funny people. They become that way not just because of what they do but because of who they are. They are able to engage us, to connect with us even if they have never walked in our Jimmy Choos, or for that matter, we in theirs.  Gloria Steinem, because she is gracious, elegant, and poised, invited us to believe that our efforts, however meager, make a difference. That the activist on the street, the volunteer in the shelter, the board member who hosts events, and the attendee who writes the check, all play a critical role in change. She reminded us that “acts matter.” She closed her speech by sharing that she considers herself the ultimate “hope-aholic”, and that the best way to heal and move forward is to share your knowledge and experience: “Tell your story so someone else can learn.”  What better inspiration could a writer have?