Thursday, December 23, 2010

Liza Bakewell

Liza Bakewell is a writer and anthropologist, Director of The Mesolore Project at Brown University, and author of Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun, which was published in November with W.W. Norton.

Not so long ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
What am I reading? I read books irregularly, generally after I’ve met a big deadline. Then I rush to the stack I’ve accumulated, and I read like crazy. When I’m working on a deadline, I hang out a lot inside JSTOR and other databases, reading research articles for days on end. Of books, I’m a slow reader because I ruminate. When I fall in love with a book, I’ll read it two or three times. I also try to read my friends’ books.

This past summer, I read mostly memoirs, because I am about to embark on writing a book that involves memoir, although it will not itself be a memoir, I don’t think. Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004) and The Ticking is the Bomb (2010), is one of my favorite memoirists, at the moment. What I love most about his two memoirs are not the biographical stories they tell, which are heart wrenching and engaging, but his storytelling style (the timing of his flashbacks and flash-forwards, the literary and philosophical interludes, the poetry of his prose). I also love his focus on social justice, his concern for the poor and homeless in one, the U.S.’s nonchalant attitude toward torture in the other. I could go on and on about those two books. I’ll probably read them both yet another time.

This past summer I reread Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott (1993), to remind me of it, and to see how my forthcoming book on my children might spring from it. I wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure, but I love how Anne Lamott keeps the humor, in spite of the sorrow, depression, mundane reality of childrearing, not to mention the loss of her close friend, as she chronicles her life with her son, the year after he was born. It had not aged. I paid attention to why.

In this lot, I squeezed in This is Not the Story You Think It Is by Montana author Laura Munson (2010) and a reread of Abigail Thomas’ A Three Dog Life (2006). The former is a book on the author’s husband falling apart, the pressure it placed on both her and her children, and her calm, Buddhist approach to dealing with it, which included long rides on horseback through the woods and mountainside. All I wanted to do after reading it was to buy a horse and move to Montana, which I won’t be doing. Sometimes it’s good to read simple, well-written prose solely for the optimism (and the day dreaming). Thomas’ superb book, I’ve now read it three times, is on her husband’s tragic story of being hit by a car, suffering brain damage and eventually dying from it. I love the super-edited prose, whittled down to just the bare essentials. So much left unsaid, which is part of the point.

By the spring my friend John Phillip Santos had a new book out, The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire (2010). He always goes for long titles. In this book of his, he winds in and out of the real and the surreal, while focused on his mother’s side of the Spanish-Indigenous-so-forth mesitizaje that runs through his veins. I love this book for its intelligent use of language (flowing with Spanish and English like converging rivers), as much as the story. Finally, I read my friend Lily King’s novel, Father of the Rain (2010), which I read as a memoir, although it is fiction. Why? Because when I read friends’ books I think of them as memoirs. Because I was reading memoirs “only,” that ‘s what I had told myself this past spring, when Lily published her book. Because I thought how much I want to write “literarily” and that novelists can teach me a lot about writing. The story of Lily’s book, which is told from the point of view of the daughter of an alcoholic father, is tragic. I wept when I read the last page.

What will I read next? Maybe Rachel Cusk’s memoir on motherhood, A Life’s Work. Maybe a bunch of articles on violence in México, if I can stand it. Maybe Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses. Maybe a lot of poems by Sharon Olds, L.R. Berger, Lawrence Raab and, heck, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams and many, many more. Can never get too much poetry, ever.
Visitt Liza Bakewell's website.

The Page 99 Test: Madre.

--Marshal Zeringue