“Down into that deep and fearful well” — Pamela Erens on why she likes to read depressing books

Pamela Erens by Kathryn Huang  Eleven Hours

Pamela Erens is the author of The Virgins, The Understory, and the recently-released Eleven Hours (all published by Tin House Books). In this short essay, originally published on the We Heart Writing website in the UK, Erens explains the reasons behind her preference for reading “depressing” novels.

My novels have never been called cheerful, optimistic, or especially funny (I happen to think each has some chuckle-worthy bits, but only the rare commentator points these out.) Some readers find somberness a failing, in my work or in any work of fiction. They want to know why any author should expect them to suffer through something “downbeat” when life is already hard enough.

Reading tastes are subjective, certainly. I would never say that there are right and wrong reasons to read. Some readers want an experience assuring them that people can master their circumstances, that happy endings are possible. They don’t want unsoothed sadness. These readers are naturally irritated when they stumble unawares into a narrative that portrays certain kinds of hardship, particularly emotional hardship, as unremitting.

I am a different kind of reader….

Read the rest of the essay here.

We Heart Writing is produced by the team behind Chicklit Club, and is for people interested in writing, publishing, marketing and blogging. With a special focus on women’s fiction, the articles range from how-to’s that take you from concept to selling your product, to guest posts from authors as they share their tips, insights and personal journeys and features aimed at the burgeoning book blogging community. 


Jodi Paloni on the transformative capacity of books

Jodi Paloni headshot

A year ago, I moved from Vermont to Maine. The neighbor boy counted my boxes of books as he helped load them from the house to the moving van. Fifty-one. His father asked me, “Do you actually read all these books?” I answered, “I either do, or maybe I will.” I flew off to organize the people upstairs, who asked more simple questions. “Should we mop the floors?”

A visitor to my new house commented, “You have more books than a person could ever possibly read. No, I mean it. It’s not even possible to read all of these books, one person, in one lifetime.”

So I thought about it. If I read two or three books per week (which happens only some of the weeks) that’s approximately eight to twelve books per month, so let’s say ten, which averages 120 books per year. I began to count my books. I looked around. One hundred and twenty books take up eight or nine linear feet on my shelves….

It doesn’t matter how many books. Books are not just for reading. They’re for viewing, touching, dusting, sorting, stacking, arranging, re-sorting, shelving, un-shelving. They’re a source of pleasure.

My husband has twenty-two screwdrivers, thirteen wrenches, and sixteen wood files.

My goat cheese-making friend keeps a couple of bucks around for kicks and, out of compassion, nurtures elder chickens that are all done laying eggs.

My daughter has 2,178 songs on her iPod.

That we are a species of excess is another topic. My point here is to say that we pay attention (and dollars) to what sparks passion, nourishes obsession, furnishes joy, soothes.

The other night, I climbed into bed with four books. I curled on my left side and spread them out, side by side, on top of the blanket where my husband sleeps: a book of poems with cover art that staggered me, two novels I was considering whether or not to finish, and a natural history book on corvids. I read the blurbs on the back of one of the novels. I read the acknowledgments inside the other. I admired the pen and ink drawings of crows and ravens on branches and in flight. I considered, once again, the book of poems. I picked it up, felt it, flipped through. I noticed the sound of quality paper between forefinger and thumb.

The cover of The Clock Flower by Adrian Rice, designed by Press 53’s editor, Kevin Morgan Watson, is thick and waxy. The art, by Jon Turner, depicts a pen and ink drawing: a dandelion seed and, standing to the right of it, a series of six human figures, lined up shoulder to shoulder, each wearing a suit–––males, let’s assume–––a boy growing into a youth, an adult, and eventually the drawing of a body stooping into an old man. Each head is represented by the life stages of a dandelion. The child’s head is the telltale toothed-leaf, the youth a bud, and so forth. The figure transforms–––the flower opening, the flower full, the seed-fluff, and finally the fluff scattering to the wind. There’s so much to think about what this image communicates. So, that night, I lay there thinking. Is this about how a person’s ideas change over time? Will the poems collected inside be about aging, grief, transformation? If the figures were female, would the flower have been placed to represent her heart, her hands, her womb? I set down the book of poems. I opened to my place in one of the novels and read the second chapter. After, I decided to let the novel go.

Jodi Paloni blog 2

During this time, all over the world, people were watching television, painting, milking cows, texting, waking up in a ditch, driving to shops and offices, defending their country, having sex, dancing  ballet, eating a calzone. My husband was in his shop turning a bowl from the burl of a maple tree. I could hear my daughter laughing, Skyping with a friend who lives in Virginia.

We’re fortunate to have some choice in the design of our time. We do the work we love, get our educations, and collect. I collect books. I also collect heart-shaped stones, clouded apothecary bottles, snail shells, small ceramic pitchers, and tiny used artifacts of whimsy that I arrange on a wooden shelf. I collect beautiful paper. I could collect antique tools, bicycles, CDs, vintage coffee pots, Frye boots, Victorian-era floor lamps (well, I do have a few of these), buoys, tea cups, paintings, orchids, Farmers Almanacs, beads, earrings, car parts, skiffs, license plates, baskets, matchbooks, military memorabilia, wooden birds, Breyer horses, iron hooks, or cheese graters. I collect books.

Many objects are pretty, touchable, stackable, arrange-able. Those fifty-one cartons of books (plus, the ones that I’d already moved in the car on an earlier trip) contained anywhere from 20-30 books. Add the new books I’ve acquired this year. I never did finish counting, but we’re talking about thousands. Books on nature, ecology, art, cottage décor, tiny houses and caravans, spirituality, gardening, and writing. My husband and I merge our collections of poetry and essays. We own a couple of dozen field guides between us. But, mostly, my books are works of fiction, and over half of those are short story collections.

Why books?

I can open up any one of any kind of books from my shelves, begin to examine and read, and something outside of my current state of awareness immediately shifts. I am “the self” found suddenly in juxtaposition with “the other.” Whether encountering the drawing of a rare moth, a journal entry from a woman sitting by the sea, or a description of a fictional town, I am catapulted into a world similar to or disparate from my own. I am made suddenly alert, brought up short by a line, an image, an idea, a whole nation of ideas. I shut the book in order to pursue a tangent. I sit down to read. What I like about books is their capacity for the boundless, the infinite, when caught in hands attached to an imagination.

Jodi Paloni blog 1

There exists a well-forged ideology that books are art, and that art is a necessity for a sane society. That books keep me sane is a personal truth I can defend. But I’d prefer to engage with the ingenuity of the artist, the writer, the aesthetics of the artifact, the design, the narrative, the mediation, the facts, the lyricism, the feet, the teeth, the wing on the page. I’d rather wage war, not in defending my need or want of fifty-plus boxes of books, but within the conflicted borders of my imaginary worlds. I want the conversation between the experience of the book and my way of understanding that experience to compel me into the next day and the next and the next, to do my work of writing books, editing books, making art, cooking dinner, taking the dog for a walk on the beach, all with a clearer vision than what I may have had without the book.

Not all books stay. I am sensible enough to know that when I cull, donate, trade, sell, recycle, I am opening space for more books to come in, and for old books to find new readers. Which brings me back to that one night in bed, that one book of poems, that compelling cover art.

Over time, I’ve come to understand what kinds of books have stood the test of time. The books that are memorable, or seem as though they one day might be, the ones that stay on my shelves, have taught me something worthy in a character’s choice, given me insight into the life of a non-human and still sentient being, or shown me the artful line of a building, the curve of a garden trellis, the shape of a sculpture. They’ve left some patterned mark on the page against a creamy space, the blankness having caught my eye. They’ve made me laugh, or cry, or shake with a powerful understanding.

I’d place myself on the cover of that book of poems, The Clock Flower, five flower heads from the left, still flowering, but with some poignant shape-shifting in near-view. I still need these books. Yet by letting a few of them go, it’s as if I’m beginning to see the beauty of flinging tiny-hooked fluffed seeds to the wind.


They Could Live with Themselves

Jodi Paloni is the author of the debut linked story collection, They Could Live With Themselves, a runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She won the 2013 Short Story America Prize and placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Her stories have appeared in a number of print and on-line literary journals: Green Mountains Review, Carve Magazine, upstreet, Whitefish Review, Contrary Magazine, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. Her website is www.jodipaloni.com

My Favorite Books of 2014

Everything I Never Told You  The UnAmericans  The Hundred-Year House  The Home Place  Life Drawing    Now We Will Be Happy  Be Safe I Love You  Faulty Predictions   The Bees   Flashes of War

2014 was a very strong year for literary fiction by women. I tried to make a Top 10 list, but that proved impossible. So I decided instead to make a list of my favorite books of the year and ended up with 30. They are listed in alphabetical order rather than by ranking. I will say that a handful of books knocked my reading socks off and stayed with me for a long time. Those titles are noted with an asterisk. I think there is something for everyone here.

It should go without saying  that there were hundreds of books that I did not get around to reading (some are still on my to-be-read list), and I’m certain many of them would have made this list had I read them. So this is just a very idiosyncratic list of the best books one guy read in 2014. Make of that what you will.

The links will take you to my review of each book. I hope you will also take the time to read my interviews with many of these authors. You can find them by visiting the Index page or using the Search bar.

Molly Antopol — The UnAmericans: Stories*

Robin Black — Life Drawing

Vanessa Blakeslee — Train Shots: Stories

Katie Crouch — Abroad

Karen Joy Fowler — We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

Amina Gautier — Now We Will Be Happy: Stories*

Lisa Gornick — Tinderbox

Cristina Henriquez — The Book of Unknown Americans

Cara Hoffman — Be Safe I Love You*

Lacy Johnson — The Other Side: A Memoir*

Kristina Kahakauwila — This is Paradise: Stories*

Lily King — Euphoria*

Maya Lang — The Sixteenth of June

Carrie La Seur — The Home Place*

Lisa Lenzo — Strange Love: Stories

Jessica Levine — The Geometry of Love

Karin Lin-Greenberg — Faulty Predictions: Stories*

Rebecca Makkai — The Hundred-Year House*

Francesca Marciano — The Other Language 

Laura McBride — We Are Called to Rise

Celeste Ng — Everything I Never Told You*

Laline Paull — The Bees

Virginia Pye — River of Dust

Claudia Rankine — Citizen* (poetry-essay-memoir hybrid)

Katey Schultz — Flashes of War: Stories*

Brittani Sonnenberg — Home Leave

Emily St. John Mandel — Station Eleven*

Rene Steinke — Friendswood

Natalia Sylvester — Chasing the Sun

Tiphanie Yanique — Land of Love and Drowning


Guest blogger Susan Jane Gilman: “What Am I Reading? Don’t Ask.”

Susan Jane Gilman  Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

Susan Jane Gilman has published three nonfiction bestsellers (Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara) but June 10 marked the publication of her debut novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. It has received much acclaim already and is an Indie Next pick for June. (You can catch her on tour this week in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Providence, New York City, and Washington, D.C.) Gilman’s journalism has been published in countless magazines and newspapers, her stories have been published in literary journals like Story and Ploughshares, and her commentaries were heard regularly on NPR. She was born and raised in New York City, attended Brown University, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. 

Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” runs over five hundred pages, and I loved every one of them. But here’s what I remember: Pip’s nasty stepmother buttered only the top of a loaf of bread, so that each slice received just the thinnest wisp of butter along the crust. There was the pathetic woman with the mouldering wedding cake, Miss Havisham. And, oh yeah, an ingenue named Estella.

That’s it.

Five hundred pages and my takeaway is a slice of bread, a bad cake, and two women. I’d even forgotten that Pip was called “Pip.” I’d had to go back and look it up.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant “One Hundred Years of Solitude”? One of my favorite books of all time. Yet here’s what I can recall of that classic: A cloud of yellow butterflies, hovering above an open-air bathroom. “Love in the Time of Cholera”? Fermina Daza. I think she was the protagonist.

“Corelli’s Mandolin?” Corelli. A mandolin. A girl on a beach.

“Beloved”? Slavery.

“Olive Kitteridge”? The fact that the main character was named — wait for it — Olive Kitteridge.


I am a literary fiction and nonfiction writer, with a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing.

Two of my bestselling books were memoirs. I have nearly total recall of the day when I was seven years old and our second-grade teacher, an eccentric, flame-haired New Zealander named Mrs. MacNuer, had us make stick puppets depicting humanoid dinosaurs; mine was a lime-green Stegosaurus with a peace medallion and a handbag. I can recall what the streets of China looked like in 1987, shrouded in ghostly, pearlescent fog, the air smelling of wood smoke and garlic while swarms of black bicycles emerged from the pollution and chugged around Tiananmen Square. My family calls me ‘the historian” due to my full, sensory memory of places, events, conversations. Butdon’t ask me about the novel I read recently. I’ll have even forgotten the author.

I am not proud of this. We writers are supposed to be encyclopedic and erudite, capable of speaking incisively about great books. Certainly, I believe I should be capable ofretaining the most basic elements of what I read. Certainly, I should be capable of quoting lines from the literature that’s become hard-wired into my central nervous system.

Certainly, I should beable to give you thumbnail synopses of the novels I’ve loved and championed over the years — from Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” to Mona Simpson’s “Anywhere But Here,” to April Sinclair’s “Coffee Will Make You Black.” to Téa Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife.” Surely, I should be ableto remember the plot from “The Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve only read the goddamn thing six or seven times. But no. I still cannot, for the life of me, tell you how it ends.

Last year, in Barnes and Noble, I came across a book about God written by Karen Armstrong. “Wow, this looks interesting,” I said to my husband. I read the endorsements on the back.

Turns out, one of them was from me.

I’d forgotten that I’d reviewed it on NPR’s “All Things Considered” several months earlier.

I’d worry that I have early-onset dementia, except that I’ve been this way since college.

And here is what is, perhaps, at the heart of the matter: Books, for me, are like fever-dreams. When I read, I am completely and utterly consumed by them. The rest of the world falls away. Caught in a riveting story, I’ll abandon my own writing, leave the laundry sopping in thewasher, ignore my mounting emails. I’ll move through my days in slow-motion, my thoughts bifurcated between the objects directly in front of me and the luminous otherworld that has takenover my brain. I feel addicted, unseeing. If anything distracts me from my fugue state, all I want todo is get back to that book.

But then, when I read the final sentence, and wistfully close the cover and set the book back down on my nightstand, it’s like a hypnotist snapping her fingers. Suddenly, I’m back in reality. And like a dream — even the best, most delicious dream — the book recedes so quickly that I am left with only fragments, glimpses of what I loved, surreal and ephemeral shards. A Russianadultress’ fingers, heavy with emeralds. A tumbleweed dancing end over end in an apocalyptic field. Ted Lavender. A tug boat storm-tossed in the straits of Japan.

Two days later, when you ask me what I’ve read, I’ll enthuse, “Oh, I just finished this phenomenal novel. It was set in an Indian reservation. With this devastating car scene between amother and son? And a tower?”

But for the life of me, I won’t be able to tell you what it was!


Mary Vensel White on LOLITA: The Book That Changed My Life

Lolita  mary-vensel-white

Mary Vensel White is the author of The Qualities of Wood, which will be published on June 17 by Authonomy/HarperCollins. It is both a suspenseful murder mystery and an intriguing character study of a young marriage, an extended family, and an insular community. Today, Mary visits Read Her Like an Open Book to share the impact of reading Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita

I first read Lolita in 1994, when I was still an undergrad at the University of Denver, and because I finished the book in July of that year (as noted on the inside cover), I can say that it was probably a welcome distraction from planning for our wedding in August. So it’ll be twenty years this summer—for the marriage and the relationship with Lolita—and it’s a good time to think (again) about the book’s influence on me.

I have two favorite books of all time, this one and Anna Karenina, depending on the context and what mood I’m in. But on the topic of Books That Changed My Life, it’s hands-down, no contest. Lolita rocked my world. From the opening pages, it still thrills me. First, there is the Foreword by the fictional “John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.,” in which we are told in clinical terms about a Mr. Humbert Humbert, that “he is horrible (and) abject,” and that his memoir is the thing we’ll be reading within the pages of the book. And then, it starts:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”

I’m including the lengthy opening in part because it’s so difficult to explain the effect of the prose and in part, for my own pleasure in doing so. Even now, twenty years and four reads later, I still just can’t believe these first short paragraphs. There is so much there, intrigue and questions and beguilements. During that initial reading years ago, my shock and awe intensified as the story progressed. Reading this novel made me realize the unlimited power of the writer, the fact that you really could write about anything, however you chose to do it. It was like clouds parting to reveal a new, limitless sky. Nabokov’s mesmeric prose, his ability to draw empathy and understanding for this “horrible” character, the sharp humor and the skewering of humanity amidst a stubborn tenderness—what can I say?

It defies explanation, this book, at least for me. It is, without a doubt, the book that most changed my life. And I realized, in pulling it from my shelf, that it’s been almost seven years since my last reading, which is certainly much too long.