Robin Hemley is the author of 10-12 books, depending how you count them. He’s won a number of awards, including the biggest talker in 7th grade, the second biggest feet, a Guggenheim, and three Pushcart Prizes, in both fiction and nonfiction. His work has appeared in such magazines and journals as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Orion, The Sun, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, New York Magazine, The New York Observer, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review online, and many others, including many anthologies of essays and short stories. He currently lives in Singapore and Iowa City and rarely confuses the two.
To say I have any book by my bed is a bit of a stretch, as I have so many beds. I’m bi-continental for the moment, traveling between Singapore, where I’ve recently taken on a position as Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Writing Program at the new Yale-NUS College, and Iowa City, where I still maintain a home . . . and a family. My family will be joining me in Singapore next year, and so for the time being, my beds are in Iowa City, Singapore, and various other locales where I give readings and conduct research.
At home in Iowa City, a book that has been by my bed quite a lot is Great Expectations – I’ve been reading this from my iPad to my ten-year-old daughter for nearly a year now. We’re currently on page 237 of 380 and Shoshie says it’s taken us over a year to get there. She also remarked the other night that she could have read the book much faster on her own (Matilda, the eponymous character of the Roald Dahl book, which is what’s currently by her bedside, read Great Expectations in a week when she was five). This is undoubtedly true. Sometimes I worry that because of my travel schedule and the slow-going of the book, we won’t actually finish it before she’s eighteen and off to college, at which point I might have to visit her in her dorm room in order to finish the book. And that might make her roommate uncomfortable. Or I might just have to keep Shoshie’s room preserved just as she left it, Great Expectations cracked open to page 345, which is probably around where we’ll be eight years from now.
I don’t know what it is with Great Expectations. We whipped through Tom Sawyer and A High Wind in Jamaica, read scores of books about Rebecca, the Jewish American Girl doll, all the Greek myths, The Wizard of Oz, several Madeleine L’Engle books, and on and on.
I suppose it has something to do with the fact that we’ve forgotten almost everything that’s happened up until 237 and so we have to keep reminding ourselves who everyone is. “Dad, “what’s Satis House?” she asks.
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. It’s a house in the book. Now let me go on.”
And also, we have to keep stopping while I explain words.
“Dad, what’s a compact?”
“It’s a kind of agreement, like a treaty.”
“I thought it meant small.”
“Shoshie, come on, I have to keep going or we’re never going to get through it.”
“Who is the Aged?”
“I have no idea.”
“What does it mean that he opened his “post office?”
“I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. Just pay attention please.”
So that is what I have by my daughter’s bed, and will have by her bed for the foreseeable future. If the situation changes, I will let you know.
As for my own books, I have had three books most recently by my various bedsides: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin, and Snapper by Brian Kimberling.
Snapper is a novel set in Indiana, where I went to school and lived during my youth, and I was reviewing it for the magazine Orion. I don’t like to review books anymore, mostly because I’m too busy, but I would do almost any assignment for Orion, as I consider it one of the finest magazines in the country. I’m glad in any event that I took up this book review as Snapper is one of the most charming books I’ve read in quite a while, and I doubt I would have read it otherwise.
I hadn’t read In Cold Blood in so long that it felt like a new book when I took it up again. This is a masterful book and it hardly needs my recommendation, but rereading it after many years made me aware that this book would probably not be published today, or if it were published, Capote would be excoriated for the various narrative liberties he has obviously taken. He’s a novelist with a novelist’s sense of nuanced character —and we forgive him his indulgences, as we should, because he’s such a superb stylist. A friend recently asked me how much percentage-wise I thought Capote had embellished. It’s impossible to say, but I’d guess at least 30%—many of them small embellishments, such as Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend Bobby running the three miles to the Clutter farm upon hearing of Nancy’s death. Rupp, in later years disputed this, saying of course he drove. I can just see Truman deciding it would be better to have young Bobby run those three miles, a move I think of as a mistake, not because it was untrue but because it’s a little melodramatic. Come now, Truman!
Finally, I’ve been reading Emma Larkin’s superb book on Myanmar, Finding George Orwell in Burma. I read this book because I’m leading a group of students from my school to Burma for Spring Break (it beats Ft. Lauderdale), and this book was recommended to me. Emma Larkin is the author’s pseudonym, and the book was written before the recent liberalization that seems to be occurring in Myanmar in advance of new elections (the true litmus test of the military government’s sincerity). Larkin’s book is moving, thoughtful, and insightful, as it toggles between George Orwell’s days as a colonial police officer in Burma, Larkin’s own experiences with Burmese artists and intellectuals in Myanmar in the recent repressive past, and the ways in which Orwell’s dystopic novels have been embraced by these same intellectuals as perfect allegories for Myanmar’s government.
Indiana, Burma, 19th Century England, and Kansas of the early 1960’s. I’d say my reading habits reflect my penchant for travel to far-flung places.
What do your reading habits reflect?