End-of-Year Reading Recommendations from and for Practicing Writers
Compiled by Erika Dreifus
Remember last year's December feature? I introduced it by explaining that throughout 2008, my writing life had intersected with the work of other practicing writers in many ways. I'd profiled writers, reviewed their books, and/or simply mentioned their efforts in this newsletter or on my blog(s). The same is happily true for 2009, so I thought I'd approach members of my own "class of 2009" with a similar request.
I invited these writers to participate in an end-of-year roundup article in which they might cite ONE book they'd read this year that they'd recommend to other writers and explain why they thought writers, especially, would enjoy it. I told the participants that they could spotlight any type of book - fiction, nonfiction, poetry, writing reference, etc. Anything. My only condition was this: They could not recommend their own books. I'm gratified and inspired by the responses my invitations yielded, and I thank these authors once again for sharing their time and thoughts with us.
The most valuable writing book I've read this year is Christina Katz's Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. It explains what a platform is, why you (yes, YOU) need one, and offers a friendly and comprehensive guide to creating and growing a platform over time. I have Katz to thank for inspiring my own platform, and for the two book deals that it has yielded so far.
I read with great interest Bob Shacochis's The Immaculate Invasion (originally Viking, now Diane Pub. Co.) when I was sick in bed with the flu. Shacochis has written here what I admiringly call a big crazy book: in this case, a closely detailed and sometimes shambling, but always riveting, account of the "soft" invasion of Haiti by the US in 1994. What becomes clear, through the lens of Shacochis's experience while imbedded with the US Special Forces, is how the US government's desire to do "good" often backfires, sometimes for cynical reasons, but perhaps just as often because there's no good or even sane way out of a situation. Highly applicable to our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
My offering is Marianne Wiggins's The Shadow Catcher (Simon & Schuster, 2007). I read it for the first time early this year, and can't stop recommending this stunning novel about the life of photographer Edward Curtis, in which Wiggins juxtaposes a character named Marianne Wiggins with the somewhat-imagined life of Curtis, placing her characters and their trajectories in the present day and in the past, using a dazzling craft mix of fiction, nonfiction, and screenplay structures.
It's a bit funny, I guess, that of everything I've read this year, the book that comes to mind to recommend is John Updike's Rabbit Is Rich(Knopf, 1981). Since I specialize in American Jewish literature, Updike generally isn't too high on my priority list, but I'm so glad every time I get a chance to read one of his better novels. He's a master of realism, of its techniques and possibilities, and somehow he makes his subjects matter to me in a way I wish more contemporary writers could emulate.
One of my favorite reads this year was Natalie Goldberg's new book, An Old Friend from Far Away (Free Press, 2009). Though I'm primarily a fiction writer myself, I loved Goldberg's writing prompts, as well as her constant reminders that we all have more to say than we'll ever know. Some chapters are a sentence long (but you won't turn the page without writing), and other, longer ones examine an aspect of writing or an author's style, from Zora Neale Hurston to Chang-Rae Lee. From such weighty topics as love and fear to the more ordinary, such as peaches and dishes, Goldberg's exhortations ("Ten minutes. Go.") will inspire -- and best of all, they'll get you writing.
(c) 2009 Erika Dreifus. This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of The Practicing Writer.