What Writers Read: Samantha Gillison

This is the inaugural post in an occasional column that will appear on TSAR’s Books Blog. It is called “What Writers Read,” and it aims to explore—well—what writers read…or start to read, or wish they were reading, or read a little of and then stop. Novelist Samantha Gillison, author of this first post, notes below that the series is “meant to be modeled on” Nick Hornby’s always entertaining column in The Believer called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” We would say “inspired by” rather than “modeled on,” but in any case, please read, enjoy, and chime in below in the comments section. Look for future entries by all manner of writers.
—RO and DR

About a Book

by Samantha Gillison

Blog about what I read this month? Well, OK, then first a caveat lector: I’m easily bored, judge by appearances and believe that the literary novel is as dead as Bruce Willis in the beginning of The Sixth Sense —all pathetically unaware that he’s a ghost who only freaks care about anymore. And then, there’s the fact that this column is meant to be modeled on one Nick Hornby writes in The Believer magazine. But it won’t be, not this first iteration of WWR at any rate, because I’ve never read The Believer. Held it a few times, yes, admired its winsome design and heft in the hand. But haven’t cracked it open lest those soy-based ink printed, thick, matte pages hurl me into the abyss of despair I suspect they will.

Nor would this caveat be sufficient if it didn’t include a disclosure about my reading ‘habits.’ If I ate the way I read I would be diagnosable with a chronic disorder. As a reader, I go through cycles of furtive binging on everything I can get my hands on —from re-reading my entire dog-eared 6th grade Agatha Christie collection to back issues of Biblical Archaeology Monthly to dense, obscure 500-page novels. And then: I starve myself. There are days, weeks, sometimes months—when I can’t bring myself to read even a recipe or the copy on a subway ad. (Always, always excepting Dr. Zizmor’s conceptual art installations.) For longer periods than I feel happy admitting I can get stuck in obsessive repetition. I will read the same thing: an author’s entire work (including fragmentary manuscripts, letters, memoirs, biographies, biographies of their lovers and enemies), and even, on occasion, I can get fixated on one book, reading it two, three, four times in  a row…you get the picture.

A friend of mine used to have a problem with walnuts. She loathed them with such violence that just hearing the word “walnut” uttered out loud or encountering it on a menu made her turn green and gag. I feel the same way about some books. And I’d rather be locked up for a month in a windowless cell, chained to the wall with an Adderall drip in my arm, forced to watch back-to back episodes of The New Girl than read literary fiction that’s going to give me a fresh understanding of the complexities of being a woman and an artist. So, there you have it. My caveat lector.

What I Intended to Read This Month:
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
This Is How You Lose Her by  Junot Diaz
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Book of Job, Edited by Paul Sanders
The Book of Job (Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version)
The Tools by Phil Stultz & Barry Michels

What I Actually Read This Month:
[* = read incompletely]
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
*Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
*Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Book of Job, Edited by Paul Sanders
The Book of Job (Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version)
The Book of Ecclesiastes (Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version)
*The Tools by Phil Stultz & Barry Michels
*The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom by Suze Orman
*The Post American World by Fareed Zakaria
Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richard J. Heuer, Jr.
Thinking and Writing: Cognitive Science and Intelligence Analysis by Robert S. Sinclair
Broken Harbor by Tara French

What I Loved:
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The sentences drew me in: Percy writes tight, fluid, funny, sad, playful, serious, smart prose with a rhythm as seductive as New Orleans in the summer but it was Binx Bolling, the book’s blue-blooded, traumatized, Korean War-vet hero who made me fall in love. Then broke my heart.

What I Really, Really Loved, Thought About a Ton and Told People to Read:
The Book of Ecclesiastes, (Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version)
Depressive, totally atheistic, and with a world view as dark as any Wachowskian dystopia, the only reason “Ecclesiastes” was allowed to stay in the Bible is because it’s so insanely, exquisitely written that even the suspicious, persnickety editors who codified the Old Testament in 90 a.d. burst into tears every time they read it. Ecclesiastes is the source of all the awesome English class titles, too, e.g. The Golden Bowl, The House of Mirth, The Sun Also Rises, Vanity Fair.

What Was Surprisingly Dull:
*Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
Don’t tell me it’s a gender thing; I’m very boy in my reading taste. I love SciFi. I devour war narratives like they’re Dunkin Donuts Munchkins. This book was just kind of boring.

*The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria
I had expected to be wowed by a sophisticated explication of global political and economic trends and an assessment that was going to challenge my conception of the United States’ position in our brave, new multi-polar world. But this book felt timid, watered down, a little heavy on the “Go Team USA!” Jehosephat knows I’m not looking for Noam Chomsky, just something a bit more clinical in my foreign policy assessments.

What I Felt Kind Of Bad, But Not That Bad, About Not Liking:
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
I don’t know, read Francine Prose’s review in NYRB. What she said. I’d only add that Yunior going on and on about pussy is getting old. And that’s not a good sign.

What I Would Recommend to My Mother-in-Law:
Broken Harbor by Tara French
Have you ever contemplated the phenomenon of the lady murder-mystery reader (I count myself among them)? Not that men don’t read them, but a lot, like millions of women, especially women of a certain age, gulp them down in massive quantities. Agatha Christie’s Ur old biddy detective, Jane Marple, has spawned dozens of mystery series based around the worlds of knitting, baking, cats, quilting, jam-and-pickle bottling, etc. And women who’ve never so much as given the finger to anyone, regularly eat up stories of brutal, obscene murder. In fact, these ladies (myself included) find it relaxing to cozy up with a hot cocoa, a mohair blanket, a purring kitty and read tales of such horrifically blood-curdling, nauseating, inhumane violence that they wouldn’t be out of place at a war crimes tribunal.

Anyway, you don’t need to understand the phenomenon in order to get big points from your mother-in-law or any other mystery lover you know by presenting them with Irish writer French’s Broken Harbor this Hannukah/Kwanza/Christmas. It’s quality.

What Con I Can’t Believe I Fell For Again:
The Tools by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels
Once upon a time, long before the Hons. Guiliani and Bloomberg tidied up our city, 14th Street was full of guys who played 3-card Monty on cardboard boxes. I was a hip city kid. I knew 3-card Monty was a con. But I’d stand there, in the crowd near 7th Avenue, watching the cards move around, shaking my head as the suckers got played, until the cops came and everyone scattered. And then, one day, my grandmother gave me the princely sum of $100 in cash for my eleventh birthday. I’d never seen that much money in one place—she may as well have given me $10,000. Of course, I marched straight over to 14th Street, stepped up to a game, slapped my $100 down on the cardboard and lost it in less than a two seconds.

Cut to: Thirty Years later. I spy a book like The Tools: Transform Your Problems Into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity, and Eureka! I’ve found it. Right here in BookCourt! The book that will finally reveal a saner, healthier, wealthier, nicer, more productive, more creative me—and it’s all going to happen fast!! I just need to follow the tools or the rules or the secrets or the women who run with the wolves or whatever. I start reading, flipping pages, trembling with excitement and then…it’s another con, not even as elegant as 3-card Monty. The Tools they want me to follow? Religious Faith.

The authors of this particular iteration of the con (we’ll call them “The Tools” shall we?) dressed up their crypto-Christian message to look like psychotherapy —“psychotherapy that works!” the Tools write. Not that pesky kind of therapy where you have to spend years ruminating through painful memories and confronting yourself and then wind up maybe saner, but not happy. Not more productive. The Tools and The Tools themselves are sort of Jungian and so if you’re the kind of person who thinks Jung’s ideas are valid, well, then you are the kind of person who thinks Jung’s ideas are valid and you and I won’t ever attain a deep feeling of simpatico with each other. And I’d give you my copy of The Tool’s opus except I threw it out already.

Long before The Tools started writing books I knew that if I could get Jesus or Yahwe or Buddha or the Guru Mai or A Higher Power I would be less anxious, nicer, more successful, more likeable and feel a true sense of purpose. But I’m not a believer. God is dead, spake Zarathustra, which, all things considered, makes sense to me.

Samantha Gillison (Saint Ann’s School, class of 1985) is the author of  The King of America and  The Undiscovered Country, many short stories (including “The Mother of the Bride,” The Saint Ann’s Review Vol. 2, No. 1), magazine articles, opinion pieces, and book reviews in various publications. She has won a Whiting Award in Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and is at work on a new novel, The Outstation.

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