As we head into cooler months, I’ve got my eye on my rocker, where I long to curl up with a blanket, a cat, and a book. This month our staff give us plenty of varied options for all our rocker reading needs, from a fiction anthology to nonfiction and memoir.
Literary Reflections Editor Andrea Lani writes, “I am reading American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree by Susan Freinkel. I borrowed the book from my library as research for an essay I’m writing about the chestnut trees we watched being planted when my teenage son was a newborn―and which are now succumbing to chestnut blight―but I’m finding it fascinating reading in its own right. Freinkel brings these near-extinct trees to life by telling their story through the personalities of the people who have loved them, from the botanists who first discovered and tried to control the fungus that would prove the trees’ undoing to elders in Appalachia who remember collecting nuts beneath the trees’ spreading crowns. I’m about to embark on the part of the story that covers the efforts to cross-breed the American chestnut with its blight-resistant Asian cousins, and I’m looking forward to the hope those chapters will engender, as well as to one day planting another chestnut tree with my son, one that will live to grow 100 feet tall.”
Creative Nonfiction Editor Rae Pagliarulo shares, “I can’t imagine what it must be like to black out―to carry out actions and conversations with absolutely no conscious recollection. Luckily, I don’t have to imagine because this month I read two books that cover very different aspects of the idea: Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola, and Sleepwalker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist by Kathleen Frazier. Hepola gives a gripping account of her years of severe substance abuse, taking the reader through the shame and embarrassment that comes with not being able to answer the simple question, ‘Do you remember what you did last night?’ Hepola’s account is scandalous and rimmed with debauchery―there were many moments when I wanted to yell, ‘Put the drink down! You know what’s going to happen!’ But the young narrator doesn’t listen, instead testing the limits of her own connection to reality, and her creation of a world that includes so many of her own bad decisions results in dizzying, claustrophobic prose that is enormously affecting. Conversely, Frazier’s memoir reads more like an epic family history, tracing the lines of sleepwalking and addiction through the branches of her family tree. While Frazier overcomes her own substance abuse as well, it’s not the abuse that kicks off her condition. The stories of the young narrator waking up in the middle of mortifying, strange, and sometimes seriously harmful behavior, broke my heart. Frazier maintains a steady, poetic, almost ethereal voice in her prose, giving the sleepwalking stories a dreamlike quality and muted edges. While these two books could not be more different, in the end, I was left feeling similarly haunted by the trouble a body without a conscious mind can find.”
Blog Editor Amanda Jaros recommends, “I recently read Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. I’ve heard about this book for years, and even saw the movie Adaptation, but something always kept me from reading it. When I finally dived in, I was amazed at the depth and detail that Orlean goes into as she weaves a narrative about the bizarre world of orchids and orchid growers. Orlean spent time going to orchid shows, meeting nurserymen, and hanging out with one particularly strange character who was obsessed with the plants, so much so that he scoured Florida swamps to steal rare ones (illegally, of course). This book is a classic work of longform nonfiction, and Orlean’s prose transports the reader to a world that most of us probably didn’t even know existed. I’m not necessarily a fan of orchids, but after reading The Orchid Thief, I am a huge fan of Susan Orlean.”
Fiction Editor Suzanne Kamata adds, “I’ve been happily dipping into the anthology The Best Small Fictions 2015, edited by Tara L. Masih, following guest editor Robert Olen Bulter’s recommendation to take my time, reading only ‘a few at a sitting.’ Although many of these short short stories cover less than a page―the shortest is a Twitter story―they are all dense with feeling, and packed with potent images. Among my favorites are ‘Scarlet Fever’ by Literary Mama contributor Stefanie Freele, in which sickness becomes surreal; ‘The Intended,’ by Dawn Raffel, which captures the weirdness of preemies exhibited in incubators during the World’s Fair; Misty Shipman Ellingburg’s 100-word ‘Chicken Dance,’ about a disappointing hook-up with a Native American singer; Bobbie Ann Mason’s ‘The Canyon Where the Coyotes Live,’ which concerns a woman with cats who longs for a child; and best-selling Japanese novelist Hiromi Kawakami’s delightfully quirky ‘Banana,’ introducing the failed entrepreneur Uncle Red Shoes who once managed a factory that manufactured stuffed toy eels, among other things. This is a wonderful beginning to a new series, and the stories are the perfect length for busy mothers.”