Sunflower Season, Learning to Read Again

Sunflower Season, Learning to Read Again

sunflowers Walking around town this morning with Raymond, I noticed we’re in full sunflower season — every alley and garden and roadside is suddenly illuminated with sunny yellow flowers. The cosmos also did really well this summer — lots and lots of big banks of pink and white cosmos around town. I love this time of year — it’s so brief, and in fact, we’re supposed to get frost on Monday night — time to go buy more plastic sheeting. But for a short window every summer we get this period of flowering — the last gasp even as the first chill of fall tinges the air.

So, this layoff thing has been interesting. In many ways, it feels a lot like when I finished my PhD — the end of a long hard slog, and a period of time in which my brain just shut down for a while. The summer after I finished my PhD, my brain was so fried from thinking about the meaning of narrative, that all I wanted was to read great big epic stories. That summer I read The Raj Quartet in a folding chair on the patio outside my apartment. I wanted a sprawling story that I wasn’t going to have to put any work into interpreting. This summer, it’s been mysteries. I’ve read a pile of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano Mysteries, as many of Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik Thrillers as I could get my hands on, and I just found a Swedish writer named Henning Mankell, whose first book, Faceless Killers, was also a good read. I’ve never been interested in mysteries before, but all three of these are really good writers, and the mystery format is really satisfying when you’re trying to get your reading chops back. I mean, you know what to expect. There’s going to be a murder. There’s going to be a detective who is trying to solve the murder. There will be false leads and usually one person will be falsely accused before the true killer is identified and the story is wrapped up. In the state of mental exhaustion I was in for the first six weeks or so after getting laid off (I did try to keep that job, an effort that I knew was probably fruitless, but which nonetheless took enormous amounts of energy between February and July), mysteries were the perfect antidote. I could read one in an evening or two, and they seemed to re-awaken that part of my brain that had been put in cold storage all these years while I made my foray into corporate life.

I’m still sort of addicted to the certainty of mysteries, but it’s been nice to feel my head opening up again to the extent that I’m reading fiction once more. I traded my bookseller friend Anna a dozen eggs for an advance copy of Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply — it’s a very odd and compelling book about twin brothers, one seeking the other, the one being sought slipping in and out of identities like suits of clothes. Madness and sanity, identity and self, how we know ourselves and one another are all up in the air and suspended in the kind of prose that makes you happy just to be reading it. Chaon is one of those writers I’ve heard about for years but never read, so that was also a nice surprise. I love finding a new writer. I also might have made a tactical error by rereading Lorrie Moore’s stupendous short story collection Birds of America in anticipation of the release of her new novel, A Gate at the Stairs. In the longer form, I miss the sharpness of the stories. I keep waiting to be slain every twenty pages or so, and because it is a novel, not a story, the knife to the heart doesn’t come unsheathed. I remember feeling this way about Who Will Run the Frog Hospital as well. That it was good, it just wasn’t great in the way her stories are great.

I’m also working on a freelance piece about a Tim O’Brien story. It’s been really interesting to see all those forgotten skills of literary analysis come back to me. I hadn’t lost them after all, they’d just been in cold storage for the 10 years I turned my attention to sentences about IP telephony and related technologies. What I’m finding particularly satisfying is the way in which working on this profile of a story and an author is leaking over into the way I’m thinking about my own novel. That was the part of grad school that was satisfying — between the program and working in the bookstore I spent all those years immersed in thinking about fiction and how it works, and I missed it more than I’d realized. It’s also nice to know that at my advanced age, the synapses can start to fire up again (turning off the tv has helped too …).

The end of summer, and flowers are in bloom all across our little town, and inside my head, the creaky machinery of fiction is slowly coming back to life. Funny how things that look like crisis can actually turn out to be a gift. I’m trying to think like a sunflower. Turn toward the light. Turn toward what feeds me, and try to have a little faith that it’ll work out.

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