As anyone who uses the site can attest, Tumblr is a great venue for people to come together and gush about the things they love (most of which tends to involve pictures of elaborate cupcakes and/or Banksy stencils—but I digress).
Lesser known, maybe, is that there’s also a strong literary community here. So I asked some of my fellow bookish types to recommend a lesser-known title that speaks to them in direct and unusual ways. Blogs generally tend to talk a lot about the news of the day, but this time I wanted to pin down some ironclad, desert-island picks—books that might give your perspective a healthy little kick sideways.
I’ve added all of these titles to the ever-growing list in my notebook. Maybe you’ll be inspired to do the same.
“On Colson Whitehead’sThe Colossus Of New York (2003): Though it may seem colossal at first, New York City remains a small town. Unknown forces make residents collide, buildings sway, and time move at unmeasurable rates. Colson Whitehead was born in Manhattan and is able to discern the ebbs and flows of urban life better than most. The stories in this book are as poetic as the views from the Empire State and as gritty as the subway below. When all is said and done this collection is not so much a set of fiction narratives, but a romance novel dedicated to those of us who will always love New York.”
The more secular I become, the less I can stand secular Christmas carols. They evoke absolutely nothing at all worth evoking. They all have themes like “home” and “snow” and “snuggling.” They all sound like the filler on some singer’s obligatory cash-grab of a Christmas album. “Jesus Christ, what time is it?” you can almost hear Dean Martin saying. “Let’s just bang out ‘Winter Wonderland’ and call it a night.”
(Maybe it’s worth noting, though, that in the second grade, on the last day of school before Christmas vacation, Mrs. Timmons asked us what our favorite Christmas songs were [I am positive she said ‘Christmas’ and not ‘holiday’; it was 1993] and everyone said “Frosty” and “Rudolph,” and I, being the 7-year-old daughter of a man who affectionately refers to Bing Crosby as ‘Der Bingle’ despite having graduated high school in 1975, said that mine was “White Christmas.” Mrs. Timmons—because she was trying to break me out of my shell? Because she was trying to destroy me?—asked me to sing it, and I complied. Later, a girl whose twin brother had witnessed the performance reported that he had called it “weird.”)
It’s the religious hymns that do it for me. The spooky ones in minor chords—“What Child Is This?” or “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” or “O Holy Night” (in which the listener is actually commanded to “fall on [his or her] knees and hear the angels’ voices”)—are terrifying*. They’re enough to put the fear of God in me. Or not God, exactly. To listen to these songs as a lapsed Catholic, as someone questioning and confused, is to see clearly the hundreds of individual threads of history that came together to form you, and then to imagine cutting them all cleanly and irresponsibly away. It’s to feel the collective weight of all the various guilts you will ever feel. It’s to imagine the family you’ll form sometime in the future, a family whose moral compass is derived from children’s literature and the handful of philosophy classes I took in college, a family full of gay Communist children who will hear Nat King Cole on Christmas morning and say “Mama, what’s a Bethlehem?” to which I will reply, “DON’T ASK QUESTIONS! PLAY WITH YOUR NEW BIKE!” And meanwhile I will be wondering, wondering, full of wonder.
(*This is not to say, however, that secular carols cannot be terrifying. Is there a more chilling moment in all of popular music than the one in which the female half of the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” duet inquires of her dubious host, “Say, what’s in this drink?” There just isn’t.)
Guernica: Your stories contain emotions made physical, often as a deformity. Also, a good many of your characters are adolescent girls or young women. Is there a connection there? And what about these things appeals to you as a writer?
Aimee Bender: I am fascinated by adolescent girls and I can’t seem to shake the fascination. A time of great transition and indirectness. In terms of deformity as a link, it’s a good question. I think I just like it when things are overt, when something is “worn” on the person, and adolescence, in its way, is kind of obvious. The withdrawn ones are withdrawn, the peppy ones are peppy, everyone is hunting for identity with broad strokes.
“‘At any rate I’ll never go there again!’ said Alice, as she picked her way through the wood. ‘It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’”—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
This is the title of my forthcoming cookbook-memoir hybrid. To be adapted for the screen by Nora Ephron. In a theater near you Fall 2012. Starring Julia Roberts as a block of sharp cheddar with a heart of gold.
“Of the many anxieties which every Christmas brings to the parental mind, none is greater than that involved in the answer to the question, What shall the children read? Sons and daughters equally have grown to look upon the gift of a book as an indispensable accessory to their holiday. Paterfamilias would have little peace were the gaily-covered volume not forthcoming as regularly as the turkey, the plum-pudding, the crackers, and other Yule-tide delights.”—Juvenile Literature As It Is, Edward Salmon (1888)
We call Salvatore Pane “Precious.” We call Salvatore Pane “Precious” because he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. We call Salvatore Pane “Precious” because he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and “Precious” is a much better nickname than “Push.” We call Salvatore Pane “Precious” because it’s easier to use in conversation than “Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire.” We call Salvatore Pane “Precious” because, in a lot of ways, he is just precious.
Precious thinks he’s an adequate mentor even though half of his mentees dropped out of the MFA program. Still, this is a good story that he wrote which you ought to read.