Nancy Slavin is a long-time English literature, creative and composition writing instructor at the smallest community college in Oregon, as well as an educator for a non-profit working to end violence against women. Her novel, Moorings, was published in 2013 by Feather Mountain Press, and more of her work can be found in Rain Magazine, Barrelhouse, hip mama, Literary Mama, and Oregon Humanities Magazine. Nancy has lived on the north Oregon coast for more than twenty years. Learn more on her website.
I finish almost every book I start. I read every word all the way to the end, even if it takes months, or yes, years. For an English teacher, I’m a painfully slow reader who only perseveres because a professor once said, “What value is there in reading quickly?” Thus, there are several halfway-throughs in a pile next to my bed, because I’m reading several books at once. There are a few books in a pile on the bottom shelf of the table, which I have finished and they remain, like dust-covered sentinels guiding me.
Books on top that will be finished some day:
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2004). I know, I’m late to the party as usual. I love Nabokov, and have read many of his novels, but I hated Lolita (confession: I haven’t finished it!) because I tried to read Lolita when I’d just started out as an educator regarding domestic and sexual violence. I could not get past the continual rape of the child. Thus, the title of Nafisi’s book made me avoid it for years, but too many people told me to read it, so I am. Nafisi’s explanations of how Western literature buoys her, her friends, and her students during the constant pressing down by militants in Iran are moving, and smart. Her story reminds me how literature connects us by leaving character motivations open-ended rather than absolute. As she says, “Our focus…is on the delicate spot where the prisoner touches the bar, on the invisible contact between flesh and cold metal,” and as I read, I know freedom is a precarious abstraction, and literature keeps our minds free. Even though the memoir is ten years old, the story and Nafisi’s writing is just as significant now as it was then. When I’m done with the memoir, I’ll pick up Lolita again.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (Penguin Classics edition). An homage to my commitment to reading classic books I, a dilettante English major and instructor, have not yet read. I love Hardy’s writing—“each was but portion of one organism called sex”—and the story of a girl’s movement toward autonomy. I don’t know why it’s taking me so long to read. I do know I was struck with how artfully and compassionately Hardy deals with Alec’s rape of Tess, especially in comparison to another book I picked up around the same time, T. Coraghessan Boyle’s Drop City, which I may never finish. I could be slow reading Hardy because I am enthralled with his use of language, and with the days when good writing still mattered, a lot.
Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003). Again, late to the party, though I’ve read three of her five books, Arabian Jazz, The Language of Baklava and Origins, but haven’t read Crescent yet. I’m only on Chapter Two and already, Abu-Jaber’s juicy, sweet, and sensual writing shines through. Diana was my thesis advisor long ago at PSU, and she was kind, helpful, and a good reader, so I read her books.
The finished books on the bottom of the table:
Legend of a Suicide by David Vann (Harper Perennial, 2010). I met Mr. Vann at Wordstock in Portland a few years ago, because he read in a room with Mary Rechner, who’d just come out with Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women and I was a new mother and needed stories about being a mom. Legend of a Suicide is a compilation of stories, but the title story is why it remains near my bed. I can’t say too much because I’ll give too much away, but the story is about a father and a son and their complicated relationship, mostly brought on by the father’s childish behavior and laying his burdens on his son. Let’s just say the sins of the father are laid upon the child in a way that made me say, “Good lord, I did not see that coming,” and left me breathless.
Disappearance: A Map by Sheila Nickerson (Harvest Books, 1996). The subtitle is “A Meditation on Death and Loss in the High Latitudes.” I’m writing a memoir about Alaska, so I read a lot of non-fiction set in Alaska. This book, which I stole from a friend’s house, is a chronicle of people whose lives have been taken by Alaska, which the Great Land is bound to do. The log-like entry structure of this book is full of famous disappearances and contemporary ones, but the structure frustrated me because the log entries are a bit dull. Meanwhile, Nickerson’s real story—the abuse in her childhood family, her leaving of a job—lurk in the shadows and never quite come to light. I finished Disappearance and really need to give my friend back her book.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein (HarperCollins, 2011). As a feminist mother who, besides teaching and writing, has also worked for two decades as an educator for a non-profit organization seeking to end violence against women, the fact that my baby daughter morphed into a toddling Disneyfied princess was not only ironic, but extremely depressing. Orenstein’s funny, personal, clear and critical analysis of how “Disney Princess” became a marketing strategy specifically geared toward younger and younger girls helped me to know I wasn’t a complete feminist failure as a mom. She also warns me in that book of the hazards of teen years to come, and I’m terrified, so I keep the book by my bed like others keep a Bible.
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, translated by Sherab Chödzin Kohn (Shambala Publications, 2000) I’d never read it, always wanted to because I like to learn about people’s spiritual awakenings, and reading the book, yes, took me a while. The plot, as we say, was slow, but I was surprised by the way the main character, you know, Buddha, went through many machinations on his journey of self-awareness—he was less perfect than I might have thought—that he seemed not so different from me. The lesson is always the same; before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. Keeps me humble.
Any literary humblers in your bedside stack?