Piles and Piles of Books by Sophie Shaw

Friday, 25 September 2020

What I have on the nightstand beside my bed began as a book stack and has now quickly become a book tower. On a plastic storage bin nearby is what you might call a book pile – spread out and messier. It’s about a month into the new school year and at the friend’s house where I have moved I did not think to bring a bookshelf. My living situation is somewhat temporary and after all, how many books can I need for just the first semester?

By now it feels mind-numbingly redundant to say that the pandemic has made life difficult-to-plan-for beyond a few days and constantly subject to change, but I keep saying it because it keeps being true. So, this summer as I was searching for apartments and planning to begin the MFA, a friend who lives outside Greensboro offered to let me stay with her for a while until I found a more permanent living situation, and I happily accepted. Her cottage is filled with paintings and other art, surrounded by gardens and with two cute dogs to keep me entertained. It is a lovely place to live, but I should have brought a bookshelf.

After spending just three years out of school, I underestimated the sheer volume of reading I would have this semester. But now, after a few weeks of classes, it feels so good to be back in school and reading so much again. It feels good to read all these books and find that I can do it. Feels good to read and have classmates who enjoy discussing these books we are reading as much as I do.

The first time I read James Baldwin was in undergrad when we read his short story “Going to Meet the Man” for an introduction to fiction class. I had never read anything like it before. I remember telling my mom over the phone that it was the first time I had read anything that was so vividly horrifying in its descriptions that I instinctively held up my hand in front of my face and read the lynching scene through my fingers as if I was watching a particularly disturbing or gory scene in a movie. Baldwin’s physical description in this scene is excellent and brutal, but what made this story stay with me after all these years of reading countless short stories in writing and literature classes is the incredible interiority and psychology of Baldwin’s protagonist. To write a character with such honestly takes great courage. Last week, reading Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, I see that same courage.

Giovanni’s Room is a very different story than “Going to Meet the Man.” It chronicles a period in the life of David, a young American living in Paris, who is forced to confront his sexuality as a result of his relationship with Giovanni – something David has managed to avoid confronting up to the point when the story begins. David has spent his life denying himself – his identity, his desires – and has become adept at compartmentalizing. The protagonist in “Going to Meet the Man” reveals his racism and misogyny to the reader through the interiority Baldwin creates, but in Giovanni’s Room, the heartbreaking power of the story comes through all that David can never say, can never admit – not even to Giovanni, and not even to himself. Baldwin’s masterful ability to tell the reader about his protagonist while withholding so much from the page is devastating to read.

I do not often read nonfiction, but in my high school US History class we read a few chapters from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to supplement our textbook, and the revealing alternative to the version of American History I had learned up to that point blew my mind. This summer I decided to read the book from start to finish, and though I am moving through it slowly now that I have so much reading for my classes, I am enjoying every page. Zinn is skilled at presenting history and facts in a fantastically readable way. He combines summary and analysis with primary sources, which makes the book read quickly while still managing to pack in plenty of detail. His opening discussion of bias and the choices historians make in what they say and what they do not say is concise and clear, and is as relevant now as it was when he originally wrote the book in 1980. Even though Zinn is referring to facts and history in this passage, I find his insights relevant to me as a fiction writer because all storytellers have to make these choices about which details to include and which to leave out – whether we are writing a news article or a novel.

For the second time in the space of six months, I am reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. The first time was for pleasure, but now I am reading it for a class as part of a close study of how the author uses different elements of structure to tell this story. Essentially it is a story about twin siblings Rahel and Estha and the events surrounding the drowning death of their English cousin who comes to visit them in India. The reader knows from the outset that some terrible tragedy has happened to this family, but though the death of the cousin is revealed in the first chapter, it becomes clear over the course of the book that this is not the only tragedy – or that there is more to the tragedy than this one event. Point of view is fluid in a way that I have never seen before, because Rahel and Estha are so close they sometimes seem to share a consciousness, and Roy moves between their points of view seamlessly. There is also a cyclical nature to the narrative structure, as Roy gradually reveals details throughout the book by coming back to the same events again and again, telling the reader more information about the same event little-by-little. It’s an incredible portrayal of memory and trauma and how these things work within a family. Studying the book now more critically as I am reading it for the second time has only made me appreciate Roy’s skill more.

There is one novel which I am, in a sense, always in the process of reading, and that is Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I am someone who often enjoys re-reading books I have particularly loved, but when I received A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a birthday gift from my grandparents when I turned fourteen, I read the final page and immediately turned back to the first to begin reading again without moving from my perch on the brown sofa in the living room. I wanted to stay in that world forever. Since then I have re-read that novel more times than I could count, and even bought myself a hardcover copy when my paperback became worn and stained orange on the corner by a highlighter in my backpack. Through the special collections libraries at UNC Chapel Hill I have had the opportunity to hold and examine editions of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in multiple languages, editions with notes written to friends by Betty Smith, and even Armed Services editions issued to soldiers in World War II, along with fan letters these men wrote to the author praising her book. Outwardly, this story of a young girl growing up in the tenements of Williamsburg in Brooklyn around the turn of the century seems as distant as could be from my own middle class childhood in North Carolina, but in reading about Francie Nolan and her family, I recognize my own. They are a family of storytellers. As Smith writes, “The Nolans just couldn’t get enough of life. They lived their own lives up to the hilt but that wasn’t enough. They had to fill in on the lives of all the people they made contact with.”[1] I cannot say if my writing style has been influenced by Smith, but I find a kindred spirit in her attention to the humanity of every character – even small characters who appear in a single scene.

In the last few days I have just begun reading Evie Wyld’s newest book, The Bass Rock. I have not read anything from this author before, but the opening has certainly caught my attention – a child on a rocky beach discovers a suitcase containing body parts. The passage ends with this evocative line: “In the memory, which is a child’s memory and unreliable, the eye blinks.”[2] The book tells the stories of three different women living in different periods of history. I am fascinated by memory in fiction and love when authors do interesting things to express the complicated way humans deal with their memories, so I am looking forward to continuing reading.

[1] Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1943) 52.

[2] Evie Wyld, The Bass Rock. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2020) 2.

Sophie Shaw is an MFA candidate in Fiction at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Category: Creative Nonfiction, Essays

Comments are closed.