The “what are you reading” survey so far: no one wants to admit to reading erotica.

It’s been two weeks since I asked readers to tell me all sorts of things about who they are, what they’re reading, and — most distressing for many of them — what their favorite books are.

I am nowhere near where I’d like to be with this survey; so far I have only 32 respondents. I’m renewing my plea for people to take the survey (you can click the link to the left or start the survey by scrolling to the bottom of this post) and share it.

That said, I’d like to share what I’ve learned so far from the survey:

  • 41 percent of respondents are between 20 and 30, and therefore could be extras on Girls.
  • The top three genres respondents read Literary Fiction (12 percent), Historical Fiction (8 percent), and Mystery (8 percent).
  • One brave soul admits to reading Erotica. (Come on! It’s an anonymous survey. I know there are more of you out there.)
  • While 47 percent of respondents prefer physical books, 47 percent read both physical books and ebooks interchangably.
  • Lots of people get their books at the library.

My favorite answers for Who Is Your Favorite Author so far:

  • “John Irving, Wally Lamb, Truman Capote” (I think this might be cheating)
  • “Impossible to pick one.”
  • “A. J. O’Connell, then Salman Rushdie.” (Thanks, Mom!)

My favorite answers to What Is Your Favorite Book of All Time so far:

  • “Also a very difficult question to answer, but if I could only read one book over and over again for the rest of my life, I would pick A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.”
  • “You have to be kidding!”

Thank you to the 32 people who took the survey so far, and once again, I beg you all to take the survey and share, share, share. I want to get as much data as possible so I can keep sharing it with you all.

Calling all readers! What are you reading and why: a survey

Recently, a piece was written on about the bleak state of American fiction. This generated some discussion online among writers about whether, in fact, things are bleak for American fiction.

It’s not a new argument. A debate constantly rages in the writers’ community about the state of reading among adults in our society. Is the future of books dim or do we have to wear shades? What are people reading, and how much, and how often?

But here’s the thing: talking to other writers about writing isn’t always the most productive conversation to have when you’re trying to understand the state of American fiction. You know who we should talk to instead? Readers.

Below is a link to an 8-question survey I put together aimed at book-lovers. I’m not the only person to have put together a survey for readers, but I am curious about certain specifics. So please take this survey, share it and encourage others to do the same. It’s anonymous, so there’s no judgment at all. Be as honest as you can, and thank you. I want to know what you’re reading and why. In fact, every writer on the planet does.

Bring me to the survey.

Mysterious Irish poetry: FOUND.

Yesterday I posted about a mysterious radio program I heard in the car on Sunday while driving through New York. The program was about Irish female poets and the divine feminine, and I couldn’t find it anywhere on the internet because I didn’t have call letters or a number for the radio station.

Well, I found it! The radio station was WBAI 99.5, the weekly program is called The Next Hour, and the actual show I was listening to is called “The Divine Feminine in Contemporary Irish Poetry.”

The show is hosted by actress and scholar Caraid O’Brien (who has possibly the neatest first name I’ve ever seen) and features actress and fiddler Mary Louise Bowe (an appropriate last name for a fiddler) and accordionist Martin O’Connell (best last name ever. Obviously.)

Click here to download the file from The Next Hour’s radio archives.

Thank you to everyone who helped me find this station and who sent me information about Irish poets. Thank you especially to Laura Fedele of WFUV, who commented on my last post and sent me fangirling round the bend. (WFUV is one of my favorite radio stations. I fight with the dial every day to get it to come in properly where I live.)

The Irish poetry that rescued me from radio hell… and then vanished.

hags with the bags, dublin

photo credit: infomatique via photopin cc

Yesterday I was driving through radio hell. You know radio hell. It’s that strange piece of highway that separates one region’s radio stations from another’s. I was headed into New York and had left Connecticut’s frequencies behind me, and I was trying to find anything to listen to that wasn’t a duet by Fun. or a baseball game. Then I heard a woman’s voice speaking in Irish.

I don’t speak Irish. The last words of Gaelic in my family died with my grandmother, and I suspect those were swears (when I was a little girl I begged her to teach me and she always changed the subject.) But I know Irish when I hear it, so I kept listening.

Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, poetryIt was a radio show about women Irish poets and the divine feminine, and I’d come in on the program half-way through, and was listening to the voice of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill as she turned the tables on the men who objectified women with a lovely poem called “Nude.” I listened to her work, and the work of others whose names I didn’t quite catch, although I heard the name, and possibly the voice, of Medbh McGuckian and a younger poet also named Nuala, but I was checking my directions and didn’t get her family name.

Medbh McGuckian, poetryThe show ended and I reached my destination at the same time. I didn’t think to check the station, I just leaped out of the car. Big mistake. Because when I came home hours later, I remembered the show and I wanted to listen to the beginning of it, but I could not find it on the Internet. I don’t have call letters. I don’t have the number on the dial. I have nothing but what I think is the title: “Women Irish Poets and the Divine Feminine.” That’s probably not even it. It’s the Brigadoon of radio shows; when I turned the car on later, the station was broadcasting in Spanish. It just wasn’t there.

I’m generations away from Ireland on both sides of my family; my great grandparents came to the U.S. one hundred years ago and my grandparents married French Canadians and Italians, and so we have all kinds of different blood in the family.

Despite that, the radio show and that poetry were so familiar to me; I couldn’t understand the language, but I could understand the sentiments and attitude, and most of the subject matter. I know that particular brand of Catholicism and also, that brand of paganism that lives (denied) in even the most devout Irish Catholic. Mostly though, I recognized the tone of the women; romance and passion and poetry mixed with a kind of spare, practical, matter-of-factness that I remember hearing in the voices of my grandmother and her cousins, and that I often hear in my mother’s voice.

So this is where I beg for help. I’m going to keep searching for this phantom radio show, but if you know what I’m talking about, if you know the station or heard the show, please, please, please leave a comment and tell me where I can find it! I’m desperate to hear the parts I missed and read the poetry for myself (but in English.)

My spirit animal is the Woolf.

I recently read A Room of One’s Own and To The Lighthouse one after the other. After that, I felt like Virginia Woolf was sitting on my shoulder, keeping up a running commentary about everything I did. Which is a little annoying because when I’m counting calories I hear a little voice in my head saying:

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

Easy for you to say, Virginia. You were a rail.

Anyhow, this made me think “Wow, she’s like my spirit animal,” and then I remembered her name is “Woolf” and I felt like she really was my spirit animal. Then I thought about people who truly believe that wolves are their spirit animals, and that reminded me of those tee shirts you see at craft fairs with a wolf howling at the moon and the aurora borealis shimmering in the background.

And then I thought, “Dammit. Where’s my spirit animal tee shirt?”

And I looked, but there weren’t any. So I made one.

Woolf Spirit Animal

The only thing I regret is that I didn’t Photoshop her head back to look like she’s howling. If I want to get really ’80s, I might order this on a sweatshirt and decorate it with puff paint, glitter and rhinestones.

My Kindle DX’s breakdown will be just like the greatest literary disaster in history, as far as I’m concerned.

broken kindle dx

Me: My Kindle! It’s dead! Nooo! No! This is terrible. This is like the Library of Alexandria burning down all over again. Oh. Wait. False alarm. It’s not dead. it just passed out again.
Husband: Did you just compare your Kindle to The Library of Alexandria? That’s hyperbole.
Me: Oh really. How do you know what was in the Library of Alexandria?

He doesn’t, because it burned down. The Library of Alexandria totally could have contained The Hunger Games trilogy, every Robert Louis Stevenson book ever written, the proofs of my own book and a freshly-ordered copy of The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern. Sure it could have. We will never know. So basically my husband is just making guesses here.

Death is the New Sleep

No kidding.

This is a certainty though: Kindle DX is well on its way to its demise. It sleeps far too much these days. And there are times, like tonight, when I can’t wake it up without a fight. And one of these days, I won’t be able to wake it up at all.

This bothers me because I can’t get a replacement DX; Amazon isn’t making them anymore. And because I love my DX. It’s got my library on it. I need it.

The poor thing, though, was an early model and it just wants to die. It is still chugging along, but it’s slowly decaying like a biter in The Walking Dead. First the power cord disintegrated because it was allergic to sunlight (Amazon was nice enough to replace that). Then the five-way mouse split down the center. (But we’re still using it.) Now the software appears to be on the fritz.

I get that it’s probably time for a new Kindle, but I don’t want another Kindle. I’m emotional about this reader in the way I’m not about laptops and cell phones. This Kindle has been my book for hundreds of novels. It’s been A Thousand Acres. It’s been Anna Karenina. It’s been The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s been a graphic novel, twice. And dammit, I was planning on it being The Night Circus right about now.

Technology is temporary, but books are forever, right?

Except that they aren’t. Because well, the Library of Alexandria.

I shouldn’t have spent so many years avoiding ‘Pride & Prejudice.’

Pride & Prejudice

Dim the lights, add a few red Solo cups full of Milwaukee’s Best and this is just like a college dance.

A long, long time ago, I stole my mom’s VHS tapes of PBS’s Pride & Prejudice miniseries and took them to college with me. My friends and I spent two nights watching it in the common room of our freshman dorm. I don’t think we got through all six hours, but we got far enough through it for a lot of deep sighs and a couple of “Tell her/him how you feel, you fool”s. I’d already watched it with my mother and spent a lot of time watching, (and rewatching,) the scene in which Elizabeth tells off a hot and bothered Mr. Darcy, but I never read the novel.

After reading pages and pages of praise for Austen in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own last month I couldn’t help myself; I downloaded it.

I finished Pride & Prejudice last night, and I get it! I understand Bridget Jones and the cult of Austen. I have seen the light!

It makes so much sense; Elizabeth Bennet is a relatable character. She and her sisters are still at large in the world. They have more freedom, but they’re still around, and they do pretty much the same things they’ve always done; they sit around their rooms and overanalyze their boyfriends, they visit relatives and they go to dances. (One of my friends pointed this out too; in a lot of ways, being at a college dance is like being at a ball. The same dynamic is still there, just with louder music and a lot of cheap beer and dancing that would shock every Bennet sister but Lydia.)

Mostly though, it was refreshing to read an old book and hear a voice that sounded like mine. I’ll bet that’s what the Austen cult is really all about. We don’t get a lot of points of view in period fiction like the viewpoint of Elizabeth Bennet. In contemporary fiction, like Dumas’s The Count of Montecristo, women are used as prizes or props or played for laughs. A woman’s quest for a husband is treated as comic relief. A woman’s quest for anything else is criminal.The words that Dumas puts into their mouths don’t sound like anything I’ve ever said or heard my friends say.

No wonder women have been drawn to Austen’s novel since she published it in 1813. In Pride & Prejudice, she treats the quest for a husband with dignity (and proves to the readers that grand dramas can happen in sitting rooms and ballrooms and on walks as well as on the high seas or the catacombs of Rome.) It’s a relief to catch female voices from the past that don’t sound strained or fake. Even the most unlikable women are three-dimensional and relatable. I can think of at least two Mrs. Bennets that I know in real life, a host of Lydias and  a few Marys. I might even know a Lady Catherine.

I really wish I’d read the book when I was in college, but the cult of Austen put me off.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I did try, once, to read it. I was in the fifth grade and full of myself, because I was reading Jules Verne instead of Sweet Valley High, and I thought I was special because my religion teacher had complimented me when he saw Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea on the corner of my desk. After I finished that, I was hungry for more praise, so I pulled Pride and Prejudice out of the school library and took it home to show my mom, who knew what I was doing. She tried to explain to me that even though I was an above average reader and might be able to understand the vocabulary, I probably wouldn’t understand the nuances of the story. And she was right. The famous first sentence – It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife – was completely lost on a 10-year-old. After a day of trying to understand the Bennets and the Bingleys and why one rich old-timey English family would feel discriminated against by another old-timey rich English family, I gave up and quietly returned the book to the library.)

I wish I’d read it after my friends and I watched the miniseries in our dorm lounge. I doubt it would have made me more of an Elizabeth and less of a Lydia. It probably would have given me false hope, and I probably would have spent hours combing over my college campus for a Mr. Darcy who wasn’t there, but it might have made me an English major, and even if didn’t, I would have gained a new favorite book.

Reading in Mystic tomorrow – with some very impressive writers.

Tomorrow, at 4 p.m. on Enders Island at Mystic, I’m giving a reading with three of my published fellow Fairfield University MFA alumni. Each of them has achieved a huge career milestone this year. And when I talk about “huge,” I mean Godzilla-huge.

Our line-up tomorrow almost sounds like a joke: “So a HarpersCollins memoirist, a Oprah-endorsed writer and the inventor of a poetic form walk into a reading.”

What’s the punchline? That I get to join them up there. Me and Beware the Hawk are joining this trio!

Allow me to introduce them:

David Fitzpatrick was the first person in our MFA program to get a book contract. David was also one of the first people I remember meeting when I joined the Fairfield University MFA program. And he was a member of the first class to ever graduate. Always first, that David Fitzpatrick. He’s also the nicest guy, so when his book contract with HarperCollins was announced, the entire program was beside itself with pride. His memoir, Sharp, which documents David’s battle with mental illness, will come out later this summer. I’ve heard him read parts of it before, and I can’t wait to read the whole thing.

Deb Henry’s novel The Whipping Club made it onto Oprah’s summer reading list. Which is crazy, because during my very first residency, I workshopped with Deb and she gave us the very first chapter of The Whipping Club to read. And now Oprah’s recommending it.

Annabelle Moseley is a poet whose book, The Clock of the Long Now, was published earlier this year. A few weeks ago, she caused a stir when a reviewer realized she’d invented a new poetic form: the Mirror Sonnet. You can read more about the resulting discussion and what exactly a Mirror Sonnet is here.

I can’t even believe I get to share the stage with these writers. Check them out. If you can, come to Mystic and check us all out.

When Joan Didion noticed my dress.

I wore it last night because it reminded me of a feeling I get when I read her early work.

It’s olive green, and loose, and I wore it with sandals and a poncho and a bag with tassels on. I chose it because I’m a synesthete and I think of the world in terms of color and taste. The whole ensemble made me feel a little like one of her essays from the late ’60s, or like the sound of a Joni Mitchell album.

And when she signed my copy of Play it as it Lays, she looked up and complimented me on the dress. “I’m partial to that color,” she said.

When I was a young writer, hungry for wisdom and mentorship, that comment would have been anti-climactic for me, coming from the mouth of one of my heroes.

I first read the work of Joan Didion as a young journalist. An editor, choosing my name from the hat in our newsroom’s Secret Santa, gave me a copy of The White Album. It was exactly what I needed at a time when I was becoming jaded about my job. Didion’s essays lifted me out of the drudgery of school board meetings and graduation speeches. Her work taught me how to see the people and the pathos in my news stories. Her prose taught me how to describe them. Every essay I read was a challenge to be a better reporter.*

There are certain people who take sharp notice of the world, and who transmit their mindsets with a startling clarity.  Didion is one of these. It was a shock to discover her work. When I was a self-centered 23 year-old, she made me able to see a larger world through older eyes. I think I grew some compassion when I read her essays.

If I had met Didion at that age, I would have wanted to wring writerly wisdom from her during our five-second interaction. I would have wanted her to impart some pearl, some insight, anything that would help me to be more like her.

I’m proud that I’m over that stage.

Today I’m happy to know that she liked my dress, because it means that those eyes, which have noticed so much and which taught me how to see the world as a writer, had seen and acknowledged me, too.


*I loved that book, but I never finished it. I’d been reading it slowly, savoring it essay by essay. I’d read and re-read an essay, then put the book away and spend a few days trying to emulate Didion in the stories I wrote for my daily. One day, the book slipped away from me. I’ve been looking for it for a decade, and I refuse to buy another copy, because I’m convinced it’s around here somewhere and my editor gave it to me and that means something. That was six or seven moves ago.

The Lonely Mountain is much lonelier when you’re a girl dwarf.

And by “dwarf” I mean the mythical variety, featured in The Hobbit, not the medical condition.

I’ve been pretty deep in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien lately.  My husband and I just finished reading The Hobbit aloud this evening, taking a chapter or two every day after dinner. Simultaneously, I’ve been reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy straight through, something I haven’t done in a long, long time. Add a LOTR movie marathon and the hype about the new Hobbit movies and what we have here is an immersion.

Whenever I read Lord of the Rings, my inner geek collides with my inner women’s history nut and I find myself obsessing about the plight of the dwarvish women. There’s not much written about them, because, in case you haven’t noticed, there aren’t a lot of  ladies in The Lord of the Rings. You could count all the prominent females on the toes of one hobbit foot, if you count Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, which I don’t. Tolkien could write a mean adventure, true, but for him, women appeared to be an afterthought. The Lord of the Rings is pretty much a sausage-fest. Galadriel was like the lone female Fortune 500 CEO on a Forbes list from ten years ago. What I’m saying here is that the glass ceiling in Middle-Earth was exceedingly low.

No one had a lower glass ceiling than female dwarves. Their glass ceiling was subterranean, and not just literally. Dwarvish women appear in one short paragraph in the Lord of the Rings appendix, which Gimli more or less recites in the Two Towers film. According to Tolkien Gateway, femae dwarves are mentioned in Tolkien’s book War of Jewels as well (which I have not read.)  Here’s the breakdown, for people who are not as obsessed as I:

•Only one third of dwarves are female.

•They are kept in the mountains by the male dwarves and only travel “during times of great need,” and then they are disguised as men.

•They look and sound like dwarf males anyhow, (allegedly) right down to the beards.

•The dwarf population dwindles when they have no secure dwelling – this tells me that the dwarf women are kept in mountains to be baby machines.

•The ladies are not mentioned or recognized in dwarvish genealogy (except for Thorin’s sister Dís, who is only mentioned because of her two sons.)

•No one who is not a dwarf has ever seen one, so some men have come to believe that dwarves are born from stone.

That last one bothers me most. Tolkien’s dwarves keep a lot of secrets – secret technologies, secret doors, secret languages – but to keep one gender a secret? That’s a cultural fail. It’s pretty degrading, it’s totally unhealthy and it’s probably abusive.

Perhaps you think I’m being unfair to the male dwarves and to dwarven culture in general. Think again. Anyone who has ever taken a high school health class knows that isolation is one of the first signs of abuse. An abuser wants to control you, so he (or she) cuts you off from your friends, sunlight, opportunities in the outer world, etc.

Now let’s pretend you’re a dwarf maiden. The men in your family keep you locked in a mountain, far away from light, fresh air and  visitors. Your brothers are free to go out into the world to work and have dragon-related adventures, but you have to stay home and brush out your beard. That is, when you’re not bearing sons.

You are kept far away from the outside world, which is a problem since you won’t be anywhere near the door when when the Orcs/Dragon/Balrog attacks. Oh, and the Orcs/Dragon/Balrog will attack, because the dwarves in Tolkien’s books never learn from their mistakes. They always mine too deeply and  they consistently fail to develop effective anti-dragon security systems.  So who won’t be able to get out while all the dwarf-men are running for the door? Right. You.

This is an appalling state of affairs, and something ought to be done about it. I’m not talking about some crazy campaign featuring a wizard and a Fellowship. I’m talking about a grassroots campaign. Let woman, elf-maiden and hobbit-lass stand together and campaign for justice on behalf of our silent, bearded sisters!

That said, I’d like to introduce the Bearded Ladies Initiative, complete with grassrootsy, home-made public service announcements that I slapped together in an hour using a piece of paper, scissors and the camera in my computer.

Free the bearded ladies

Sad, true, and seldom acknowledged.

Bearded Lady Campaign

She isn’t your dragon-hoard, male oppressor!

I encourage those who stand with me to make their own beards and write their own slogans. If you’re really committed, buy a tee shirt. All proceeds will go to me, unless you can find me some real Tolkien-style dwarf ladies languishing under the mountains. Which you won’t, because as Gimli tells us, they are well-hidden.