You’re In Luck

Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of all things Irish. I mean… whiskey, potatoes, luck. What’s not to love? And at the top of my favorite Irish things is, of course, the rich literary tradition of Ireland. So, this St. Patty’s Day, I couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to pass along some of my favorite books by Irish authors.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. By James Joyce.
You can’t roam an Irish town without passing a bookstore, and you won’t see a bookstore without Joyce in the window display. But while the modernist style he introduced marked a turning point for Western literature, it can be damn hard to read. So if you’re new to Joyce, start with this coming of age tale (based on Joyce’s own life) – it’s not only powerful and lovely, but one of his more approachable works.

The Last September. By Elizabeth Bowen.
This is a book for lovers of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, but with an Irish twist. Or rather, with an Anglo-Irish twist. That is: this book recounts the experience of the aristocratic Irish class of wealthy land-owners that were loyal to the British crown in the years before Ireland gained independence. So it has all the marks of your classic romantic novel: class, marriage, and uncertainty. But with some good Irish politics and history thrown in.

Murphy. By Samuel Beckett.
Be warned: this difficult book will have you confused most of the time. And that’s pretty intentional on Beckett’s part, since he is, after all, depicting the life of a mentally-unstable man who gets a job working at an asylum. Another perk: when you’re not confused, you’ll be laughing to the point of tears. And if / when you do finally piece together these wild and crazy scenes, they are ones you will never forget.

Graveyard Clay. By Mairtin O’Cadhain.
If you’re detecting a theme after these first four books, it’s probably this: their difficult reads. And this is no exception (don’t worry , we’re coming up to some contemporary fiction that, I promise, goes a bit easier on the brain). In fact, this book was deemed so difficult to translate from it’s original Irish language text, that Irish presses refused to publish translations until just a few years ago. But like so many famous Irish novels, this book is a truly fresh and innovative take on literature and the things writing is capable of…

Reading in the Dark. By Seamus Deane.
A reading of Irish literature – and especially of Irish history – isn’t complete without consideration of “The Troubles”, or the period of religious conflict that plagued Northern Ireland throughout the late twentieth century. This novel (based loosely on Deane’s own life) is one of my all-time favorite books and is a stunning, haunting, and powerful depiction of one family’s struggles, sorrows, and secrets in the midst of the troubles.

Milkman. By Anna Burns.
While we’re on the subject of The Troubles, I can’t forget this stunning novel that came out just a few years ago. We’re back to the category of hard-to-read, Irish novels, but the intensity of Anna Burns’ language and the intensity of the plot will have you hooked start to finish, and like Reading in the Dark, this book will leave you with a deeper understanding of the impacts of The Troubles on the people who lived through them.

The Master. By Colm Toibin.
Ordinarily, I might choose Brooklyn as my top-recommended Toibin novel, but I wanted to highlight this often-overlooked work, which offers a fictionalized portrayal of Henry James. This book is really one for literary buffs, and the more familiar you are with James’ own works, the better. But even without that background, Toibin’s stunning control of language and narrative throughout this novel is simply impossible to ignore.

Normal People. By Sally Rooney.
This story is about exactly what you might guess, based on the cover: two normal people. And yet, boring as that may sound, this story of two young, normal people is simply captivating, nearly impossible to put down (I think it was the first novel I every read in just a day). Rooney’s capacity for developing characters is uncanny. You will get all the feels with this book and then you’ll quickly be onto Rooney’s other beloved novel, Conversations with Friends.

Academy Street. By Mary Costello.
Maybe it’s because I’m Irish-American myself, but this modern-day immigrant story struck a cord with me. It has one of the most memorable twists I can remember and is one of few books that has ever made me literally cry. It is easy to read, but so lovely and heart-wrenching, that I definitely recommend grabbing the tissues before you start.

Room. By Emma Donoghue.
I don’t read a lot of thrillers, and it’s even more rare I find one to be truly exceptional, but Room is exactly that. An exceptional thriller. If in the first few pages, you’re thrown off by the strange style and voice, keep reading. If you’re like me, that incredible voice will ultimately be the most memorable thing about this book – which is saying a lot considering the intensity of the narrative. There’s a reason the film was such a hit – this is simply an unforgettable story.

Alright. There you have it – a list of books by Irish authors that will leave any reader feeling lucky as a leprechaun. But before I go, I do want to mention a couple of novels that are notably absent from my list, and why.

Ulysses. By James Joyce. … It’s just too difficult to read. Too much to recommend to, well, anyone. Go for Portrait of An Artist instead.

Angela’s Ashes. By Frank McCourt. … Brutal in it’s depiction of an Irish town, this book was marketed as a memoir but there has been plenty of controversy as to where McCourt was honest and where he wasn’t. I’m still not sure about it.

A Portrait of Dorian Gray. By Oscar Wilde. … First of all, you’ve probably read it or at least know the story, and secondly, it’s so long. So so long.

Say Nothing. By Patrick Keefe. … Because, to my chagrin, I haven’t read it. Yet. But it is on my TBR list. I’m including it here just so you know I haven’t been under a rock for the past few years. I know I’m behind.

Poetry. In general. I didn’t know where to start and I haven’t read enough collective works, but I would be embarrassed not to briefly mention at least William Butler Yeats, Eavan Boland, and Seamus Heaney here.

Celebrating Black History Month Through Literature

I’ve been seeing a lot of great book lists in celebration of Black History Month throughout February, but try as I might, I really couldn’t choose a list of my favorites – it got too long too fast. Instead, I’m limiting myself to books by Black writers which I’ve read in the past year, and I decided to break out my top recommendation (or two) by category. And yes, I got as specific as I could by category in order to fit more books on this list. So whether you like non-fiction or poetry, contemporary or classic reads, you’ll find a must-read book from a celebrated Black writer here.

And I could add so many more. Comment below or messages me for additional recs.

Non-Fiction: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Isabel Wilkerson

This should be required reading, in my opinion. Wilkerson pushes readers to see American social hierarchies and racism with a new lens. She demonstrates, with the help of historical trends and indisputable data, that America continues to enforce a caste system by using race to limit the movement of individuals between social or socioeconomic classes. This book illuminates exactly why the notion of America being “beyond racism” is problematic and dangerous. Get the book.

Non-Fiction (Sorry… it was a tie): How to be an Antiracist. Ibram X. Kendi

I have to confess: this is my current read, but while I’m just over halfway through I am absolutely blown away by Kendi’s ability to lay bare the nuances and complexities of racism in America. And, more than anything else, I am relieved by his refusal to couch racism in forgiving language and his ability to demonstrate why that language perpetuates racist policies, beliefs, and practices. Get the book.

Classic Fiction: The Color Purple. Alice Walker

I read this last year for the first time, and after finishing I simply had to take a break from reading. To digest, contemplate, and also to mourn finishing because this is the kind of book that leaves you knowing the next read simply won’t live up to that standard. Another great reason to read this book now is that there are some great recent books to pair with it, like In Search of the Color Purple, by Salamishah Tillet.

Contemporary Fiction: Luster. Raven Leilani

This portrait-of-an-artist narrative is written with such a distinct and engaging voice that the reader inevitably finds themselves drawn in immediately. In the early chapters, this book pushed me to really step outside my own experiences, but by the end I was captivated by the ways in which, when given the chance, Leilani’s protagonist came to understand and empower herself as a woman and an artist. Get the book.

Science Fiction: Kindred. Octavia Butler

Let me preface by saying I am really not a reader of science fiction, but a trusted friend recommended this to me and I owe that friend BIG TIME. Without wanting to give anything away, I’ll just say that this story puts the contemporary reader into such close proximity with America’s ugly history of slavery, closing the distance and desensitization we have become accustomed to from media and watered down school history classes.

Poetry: A Fortune for Your Disaster. Hanif Abdurraqib

I feel saying too much about these poems will diminish them. I’ll leave it to Hanif:

“the poem begins not where the knife enters
but where the blade twists.
Some wounds cannot be hushed
no matter the way one writes of blood”

Poetry (yes, another tie…you’re welcome): The Tradition. Jericho Brown.

Again, what could be said about this 2020 Pulitzer Prize Winner? Certainly nothing better than

“I begin with love, hoping to end there.”

Short Fiction: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Deesha Philyaw

These stories are such a wonderful celebration of Black women and the South. These women are nurses and mothers, friends and sisters, lovers and teachers.  Philyaw infuses these stories with so many aspects of Southern culture, both positive and negative – from food and religion, to language and music, even stereotypes and discrimination. These stories are honest, heartfelt, and memorable (if you like them, I also recommend Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo). Get the book.

Memoir: The Autobiography of Malcom X. Alex Haley

This is a powerful, telling memoir of a man too often misrepresented within the history of the Civil Rights struggle. To clarify any confusion: in the final months of his life, Malcolm worked closely with Alex Haley to draft this memoir, only to be killed just before finalizing as the last few chapters. In recent years, I’m encouraged to see alternative perspectives about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers resurfacing, but would highly encourage readers to pick up with this memoir.

Bonus Rec (My Favorite): Sula. Toni Morrison

This is my favorite book by my favorite author. This book does so much work (in shockingly few pages). In this story of two strong women, Morrison touches on huge themes–racism, family, memory, beauty, friendship, forgiveness, and more. And from a technical perspective (because I’m a nerdy writer), I know of no book where dialogue and setting do so much work for the story.

Bonus Classic Fiction (Sorry, I can’t stop): Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison

I have read this book several times, and each time I pick up new things, and that is Ellison’s genius. The themes echo in this book through every sentence and scene, leaving the reader with a more powerful impression of the pervasiveness and violence of racism in America. Yes, it’s long but just trust me, it’s worth it.

Plus, some other great links to check out:
Find a Black-owned bookstore in your state with this list of 125 Black-owned, independent bookstores nation wide.
Check out these highlighted, forthcoming books by Black authors from BiblioBria (or watch her video recap!).
I also love this list of top books by Black authors published in 2019 (because none of us get to all the books).

On Reading in 2021

Well I’m late in getting this out there, but I wanted to share a few thoughts about reading in 2021. And I don’t just mean my own reading goals or what books are coming out. I mean that now, if ever, seems to me a good time to stop and think about what it means to be reading at this time – in the year following the infamous 2020. What does reading mean in the midst of a global pandemic, following a year of political divides and civil unrest? A year of financial crisis, environmental disasters (as I write this, most of Texas is without power following a crazy snow storm), and racial injustice?

I believed that in this moment, reading means a lot of things. But more than anything else, it means community.

I see a lot of readers setting themselves challenges – a certain number of books, books in certain genres or categories, a particular prize list of books, “50 books by Gemini authors”, fill-out-this-bingo-card-of-books, etc. And all of these are great approaches to reading. And in fact, they are the kind of challenges that I’ve often used to push myself to read more. But recently I’ve realized the limitation of “reading more” versus becoming a better reader.

What do I mean by “better reader”? I don’t mean reading faster. I don’t mean reading James Joyce. I mean connecting reading to real life. I mean connection and community.

In this pandemic, we’ve all experienced some level of isolation. Many of us turned to books as a way of connecting with the outside world, and that is powerful. But it is not as powerful as the dialogue that exists between readers after those books are closed. The way that the literary community has adjusted to our new “virtual” reality has been astounding. Book clubs, lectures, classes, and readings have continue to connect readers virtually. Whole conferences, open mics, and writing programs are being offered in virtual formats. And even though this has been going on for some time, it took me a long time to understand how these types of activities could make me a “better reader”.

Recently, I just so happened to attend a reading with three authors who’s books I’ve read in the past 6 months. And their discussion (on craft, on subject matter, on theme, on process, on the publishing industry, on academia…) has been on my mind all week. For the first time in months, I felt the way that literature, writers, and readers come together to make up a community. And not just any community, but one that is capable of educating, of connecting people, and of fostering real change. If we don’t talk about Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste or Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, then we are limiting the potential our reading has to affect change in our world.

I think that readers deserve better. So this year, 2021, my goal is to read in order to connect. To learn. To change.

Check out some other bookish bloggers who set some great literary goals for 2021:
Fiction Matters: My 2021 Reading Intentions
Sarah’s Bookshelves: January 2021 Books to Read (and Skip)

5 Reasons I’m Attending the AWP 2021 Conference

Like so many organizations this year, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) is making it’s annual conference fully virtual. Now, I’ve been wanting to attend the AWP Conference for the past several years, but for various reasons (the usuals: time, money, self-doubt), it didn’t happen.

This year’s virtual conference will be my first one, and obviously I won’t be able to compare it to an in-person event. Not yet, anyways. And while certainly there are many who will be disappointed or will even abstain from the event simply because it is virtual, I wanted to share my top reasons for attending:

  1. Accessibility, or because I won’t be going alone. In the past few years, through my low-res MFA program and a lot of local writing groups, I’ve made a few writing friends. But only a small fraction of those friends attend AWP and, as someone going without an affiliation to an organization or press, I pictured myself eating every meal alone and sitting silently in the back row of lectures. Of course, some of this has to do with my own fears and inhibitions, but that doesn’t change the fact that a first-time in-person AWP conference intimidated me a bit (besides, aren’t most writers introverts?). This year, I have several friends attending. Whether they have the same reasons for going this year as I do, I don’t know. Regardless, I’m already looking forward to the group chats and shared notes, the debrief calls, the memes, links, recommendations — all of the nerdy ways we’ve learned to connect virtually in this past crazy year.
  2. Affordability, or because I can afford it. I’m all for writers and teachers getting paid well, so the price of AWP never upset me. But also, as a person not making any money off their writing, the thought of paying hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on conference fees and travel expenses was a bit of a deterrent. And not only for me, but also for that small circle of writer friends I’ve mentioned before. It also can be hard to spend a significant sum when you’re not sure about the quality of the conference or if it will meet your needs. This year, I’m hoping the more affordable price of the virtual conference will give me a better sense for whether future conferences will be worth the time and investment required.
  3. The schedule, or because the line-up kicks ass. I was a little concerned that, being a virtual event (among hundreds of other virtual literary events this year) the AWP conference keynotes, lectures, and workshops might not draw the kinds of speakers I was keen to hear from. But that hasn’t been the case. From poets Joy Harjo and Rick Barot to novelists like Jennifer Egan and Edwidge Danticat (not to mention so many editors, publishers, teachers, and agents) I’m already overwhelmed by how many good session options there are. The best part? This year, again thanks to the virtual format, scheduling conflicts aren’t an issue. I can go back and watch anything I miss.
  4. I’m finally ready to network, or because 2020 gave me time to write. In years past, I have to admit I hardly felt “writerly” enough to warrant attending AWP. Again, this is a persona issue but I know several other writers who feel the same. And while certainly I wasn’t nearly as prolific in 2020 as I would have liked, I definitely haven’t wasted the year. I was published in a couple magazines, started supporting a literary magazine as a reader and social media coordinator, took a virtual online poetry class through Hugo House, and launched a bookstagram account and my own blog/website (as you know by now). And though maybe this isn’t much – it’s not a book publication or manuscript draft – but it’s given me the confidence I need to feel “ready” to network with other writers, spend a week focused on writing, and even take time away from family and work to do so.
  5. It’s been a year, or because I need a break. Unfortunately, I don’t make a living off my writing. I don’t know many (any?) who do. Which means I have a full time job that isn’t writing and like most, the stretch from the December holiday season to early March is a long one. Especially in this pandemic, where each month can feel like a year. I’m primed for a creative outlet and a break from work, and AWP is offering both at just the right time.

I know that there are likely some drawbacks to a virtual conference, and some experiences that I won’t get with my first AWP that I might have gotten in person. But ultimately, the virtual forum for 2021 (aside from being totally necessary in this pandemic) is coming, for me, at exactly the right time. I’m so grateful to the volunteers and AWP members that are working so hard to pull this together and I absolutely cannot wait to attend.

Related links:
Association of Writers & Writing Programs: https://www.awpwriter.org/

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