Back in December, I decided to take a short break from most things on the Internet, and now it’s May, and this may be the longest break I’ve taken from blogging since 1999. With such a long time away, I feel like I should be coming back with deep hermitic wisdom, but the most valuable thing I took away from the experience was a clearer understanding of who I am and how I work best.

I may or may not write more about that later,* but coming back to this site felt a little bit like waking up in a strange hotel wearing an 80s prom dress. So, after this post, kristyharding.com will be moving from WordPress to squarespace. If you’re following with RSS, you shouldn’t need to change any of your settings. If you’re following on WordPress, you will probably need to find another way to subscribe.

New posts and updates from elsewhere will still go out to Twitter, and I’ll still get DMs and replies, but I won’t be hanging out on Twitter much anymore. This was a hard decision because there are a lot of great folks on Twitter, but Twitter’s all about pithiness and speed. I’m a fiction writer not a reporter. It takes me a long time to process the news and respond, and unless a volcano in the Cascades wakes up, there isn’t much I need to know before it shows up in my inbox or Feedly.

That said, less time on Twitter means more time for Instagram and Pinterest. If you’re over there, and we haven’t connected yet, I hope you’ll say, “Hello!”

So, that just about wraps it up for housecleaning.

Stay tuned for more significant news in June or July. (No, I’m not pregnant.)

*I’m going to continue to post news updates on publications and things, but I’m on the fence about picking up blogging again. If you’ve read this far, and you have an opinion on the subject, I’d love to hear from you.

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It has been a goal of mine for years to spend less time on the Internet and more time reading books, and this is the year I started to get somewhat close to where I want to be. Overall, I’m thrilled, but an unfortunate side-effect is that less time on the Internet means less time talking about what I am reading, and some wonderful books failed to get a signal boost this year.

So, to make up for lost time and in no particular order, here is my Top 10. (Well, 9 and a series, but who’s counting?)

Glamourist Histories, Mary Robinette Kowal

The Glamourist Histories are what might have happened if Jane Austen’s novels took place in an alternate Regency in which illusion magic (“glamour”) was one of the accomplishments of talented young women alongside dancing and embroidery.

By all rights, I shouldn’t have been this series’ target audience. I’m not a big romance fan, and I’ve been picking up and putting down Pride and Prejudice (and Sense and Sensibility and Emma) for over ten years. Yet… I loved these books. It helped that the protagonist is whip-smart and proud of her accomplishments in magic, and her intelligence and artistic talent are seen as assets by her suitors rather than consolation prizes.

Who should read it? Fantasy fans who would appreciate a magical system in which the ability to create things of beauty is the measure of skill rather than the power to destroy.

Pair with… Earl Grey tea and scones—on the good dishes.

Heated Leather Lover, Annabeth Leong

After adding this book to my list, I considered revising my position on romance, but I decided against it because Heated Leather Lover is erotic romance (which is something else, dah-ling) and as different from the Glamourist Histories as a motorcycle ride is from high tea.

Heated Leather Lover is about being brave in the face of personal demons so entrenched they practically have a mother in-law apartment with its own entrance. Which doesn’t sound like the kind of book you’d want to bring to bed. Yet…somehow…the heavy themes don’t make the story any less hot.

There are books that are notable in themselves, and there are books that challenge the limits of a whole genre. When I put down Heated Leather Lover, all I could think was, “That’s what erotica can do.”

Who should read it? Who’s to say? YKINMKBYKIOK

Pair with… Plum nail polish and/or a leather jacket.

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things is not an easy book, and it’s not an easy book to talk about. At over 500 pages, it’s a commitment, and even those familiar with Elizabeth Gilbert’s literary precursors to Eat, Pray, Love will probably find it challenging. It certainly asks readers to persevere in ways most books would never dare.

And yet. And yet…

This book changed how I think about time. Time in narrative, yes, but that’s boring. I mean actual time. It was the first time I’d considered that individuals can exist on different time scales the way rocks and cornstalks do, and not just in a “damn kids and their twitters” kind of way.

Who should read it? Renaissance folks and anyone who has ever dreamed of traveling by whaling ship.

Pair with… A long vacation. Preferably off the grid.

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up if it hadn’t been for the endorsement by J.K. Rowling on the cover. As it was, the book sat for months on the shelf because I couldn’t believe that a diary of a teenage girl living in a ruined old castle in the 1930s could be interesting (or anything but depressing).

How wrong I was. Cassandra is another smart protagonist, and while the scope of her observations extends only to bits of London and a small English village, the depth of her insight into the characters around her more than makes up for it. The book was written by an English author living in the United States, and it is full of the loving detail that you would expect from someone writing about home from a distance.

Who should read it? Writers, people who are close to (and irritated with) writers, and those who like snooping in other people’s diaries.

Pair with… Nothing. You’ll feel guilty pairing it with anything else.

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

How did it take me until I was almost thirty to read The Wind in the Willows? I have no idea, but I’m glad that I was finally able to put things right.

In case I’m not the last person in the world to read The Wind in the Willows: The book is about talking animals who wear clothes and paddle around in boats and have picnics and drive way too fast and end up in jail and escape from jail and fly south for the winter. I should probably put a spoiler warning before this paragraph because I pretty much just gave you the plot of the book, but if you’re reading The Wind in the Willows for plot, you’ve, well, lost the plot.

The Wind in the Willows is an experience in the way that the original Winnie the Pooh stories are an experience, which is why you can forgive Kenneth Grahame for taking way too long to describe everything. Did I say “forgive”? I meant to say “thank” because every minute spent in the book is a minute spent in a fairy ring: If you can ever manage to escape the only thing you can really say is, “What was that all about?*

Who should read it? You. And you. And you can come, too, lead foot.

Pair with… Your most comfortable pajamas and/or a country picnic.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs

It’s difficult to say anything about this book without giving spoilers, so I will only say what would be immediately obvious if you had the book in your hands: This is a beautiful book full of pictures of spooky children doing odd things.

Miss Peregrine’s is as dark as you would expect from a story in which one of the major characters fights monsters and Nazis, but what sets it apart from other dystopian YA is a terrible beauty, as if the spirit of the island permeated the book itself.

Best of all, though, are the characters. It would have been easy in a book like this to assign powers and stop character building there, but everyone in the book is memorable for their personality as much as for what they can do. I read it twice and actually found it more enjoyable the second time.

Who should read it? History buffs, Emerson fans, and flea market junkies.

Pair with… Cotton candy and old love letters.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, MR James

This was the year I discovered MR James. Like many I found him through his literary child HP Lovecraft. James was an academic. In fact, he was so successful as an academic his obituary didn’t even mention his ghost stories, but we have him to thank for the idea that the creepiest stories involve people like us in places that we are familiar with instead of rich people in gothic castles. Since he was such a fan of keeping his demons close to home, his stories involve inscrutable documents and old libraries and university faculty. While that doesn’t really describe my life anymore (sniffle), I found Ghost Stories of an Antiquary scary as hell.

Who should read it? Lovecraft fans and Oxbridge dons.

Pair with… Modern Alchemy Ex Libris candle…and a flashlight, just in case.

Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, Michael E. Bell

I grew up about an hour from where most of the stories in this book are told, yet I had no idea until I found this book on a library shelf in Oregon that there is a vampire tradition in New England folklore.

Readers hoping for Dracula-style (or, help us, sparkly) vampires will be disappointed. The “monsters” that appear in these legends are more like forces of nature than personalities. But it is hard to argue that an unseen corpse that sucks the life force out of members of their family one at a time isn’t creepier than…well…just about anything else.

Who should read it? Lovecraft and Poe fans and anyone who thinks vampire lore is getting a bit stale.

Pair with… A road trip to look for New England burial grounds that ends with dinner at a colonial inn.

The Gift of Good Land, Wendell Berry

The Gift of Good Land is a collection of 24 essays that follows Wendell Berry “through the highlands of Peru, the deserts of southern Arizona, and Amish country as he studies traditional agricultural practices” (goodreads).

It is rare to find a book of essays over thirty years old that isn’t dated, especially when you consider that a thirty year difference in agricultural technology means there are essays in here that ask questions like, “Should I bother switching from a scythe to a weed whacker?” But the readability of The Gift of Good Earth is extraordinary. It helps that the book isn’t really about farming issues in the 1970s but about technology as-such and Berry’s attempts to figure out his place in it.

Who should read it? Technologists, ethnographers, and people who like words like “mindfulness” and “sustainability.” Writers and artists should keep an eye out for interesting connections between sustainable agriculture and a healthy creative process.

Pair with… Waxy heirloom potatoes with flaky salt.

My Life in France, Julia Child

Every few years I go through a Julia Child phase and binge watch every episode of The French Chef I can get my hands on, but I avoided reading My Life in France for years because I couldn’t imagine the things I loved about the show translating into a book. In a way, those fears weren’t unfounded. The book is like a prequel to *The French Chef.” But when I read it, the story of how a bored newlywed in her thirties who couldn’t make a béchamel became a not chicken dropping French cooking force of nature was exactly what I needed.

Who should read it? Late bloomers, armchair travelers, and people who like food.

Pair with… Sole mueniere and a skinny baguette.

Every once in a while someone asks me why I don’t post fiction here. I never have a good reason, but I never get around to doing it, either. At least, I haven’t until now. This morning I was poked about it again, and I figured now was as good a time as any.

So, let me introduce Mr. Pym. Mr. Pym is the director of TIDY (Temporal Integrity Department), a small government agency with the big job of keeping wandering time travelers from doing (too much) damage. He’s a minor character in a story I’m currently working on, but I’m not sure how long that’s going to last. He’s starting to steal the show. 

Those of you who’ve managed to follow my bouncing around the country know that I made a Boston to California move like Mr. Pym does. While I never had an experience quite like this–the coffee shops in Cali were a bright spot in my time there–his culture shock is inspired by my bumbling attempts to figure out how to live in a place where drivers wave each other through stop signs.     Read the rest of this entry »

One of my oldest and strangest memories is of being about three years old and running around the house with my stick horse bellowing the theme song from Zorro at the top of my lungs. I have no idea how or when I encountered Zorro at three years old–I have to guess that I was exposed to it more than once since I had the theme song memorized–but I do remember that I wanted more than anything else to be like him. I wanted a horse and a mask and a very thin sword and a black uniform, and I wanted to ride around on my horse and right wrongs with perfectly choreographed fight scenes that always ended neatly with the last letter of the alphabet. I’m fairly sure that three year-old me would be very disappointed that all I got when I grew was a closet full of black clothes (without the cape, which was the best part), but there is very little about three year-old me that I can relate to anymore. I grew up. I forgot the song. The horse and cape went into my bedroom closet and then into the attic and eventually disappeared.

I now know that my love of Zorro was only one of many pieces of myself that went underground as I grew up. Riding on his heels went masculine energy, extroversion, the confidence to follow my own moral compass toward justice (or to prance around the house) without asking anyone else’s permission, the tendency to yell at the top of my lungs. Somewhere along the way, I got the message that these parts of myself were unacceptable, so I buried them and pretended that they didn’t exist. Everyone does this.

Jungians call the things we bury “the shadow.” In his book A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert Bly uses the metaphor of an invisible bag: “We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.” This sounds like a terribly neat process–how hard is it to pull something out of a bag?–but it takes great courage to be defiant enough to say, “No,” to the societal pressures that convinced us to mutilate our personalities in the first place, and in the meantime we have to live and work with other people who carry around their own invisible bags. We play chicken with each other, daring each other to be vulnerable and show off what’s in our bag and the punishing each other when we do. We move between contexts that have different attitudes about the things in our bags, putting on masks and taking them off again as deftly as Clark Kent becoming Superman.

And, sometimes, when we are forced to confront something that’s in our bags that we aren’t ready to deal with, we take it out and hand it to someone else. Jungians call this “projection.” Bly says, “When one ‘projects,’ one is really giving away an energy or power that rightfully belongs to one’s own treasury.”

Perhaps, projection is nowhere more obvious than in stories in which a hero represents everything that is acceptable (except for some small but potentially fatal weakness to convince us the hero is human) and the villain acts on the aspects of the self that the hero has to reject. Theoretically, this energy should empower the villain and diminish the hero, and for awhile it does as the villain uses the hero’s refusal to accept their own ruthlessness against them to break the rules and gain an advantage, but this advantage comes at a price. The villain loses everything but the projection in the end, becoming invisible except in the ways they dance the dance the hero made for them, justifying their inevitable death with the “fact” that it isn’t a person that’s dying but chaos or insanity or lust.

But the death of the villain is only ever a temporary ending because the shadow doesn’t die when the villain dies. It just jumps like a tick on a dead deer onto someone else, and the cycle begins all over again. And the shadow will continue to bounce from face to face to face, confronting the hero over and over again until the hero is forced to finally reach into the bag and confront their own inner darkness, to descend to the underworld like Inanna.

This process of avoiding the dark can go on indefinitely, which is how we end up with franchises that go on for fifty years without resolution, but, eventually, in order to have real closure, the hero must be forced to confront the shadow and take a long, hard look in the mirror and answer the caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?”

 

I’ve been carrying around this idea for a long time–maybe you have, too–that there is a right way to read poetry. The right way to read poetry is very serious and very slow. You are supposed to read each word one at a time and each line two or three times, and then you are supposed to ponder the meaning of each word and the rhythm of every line, and if you are very good you will write little dashes and lines to mark the tempo and look for patterns, or maybe you’re into imagery and circle all of the similes and metaphors.

When I was in school, I read poetry like this. The other day I stumbled on my marked-up copy of Mark Doty’s Atlantis, a book that was assigned during my first semester of grad school. Reading the marginalia just before I erased it–Thank God, I wrote in pencil–was like reading one of those classics books that they give children that have footnotes defining all of the hard words. It was useful, probably, when I was writing that paper on allusions, but I don’t read poetry like that anymore.

Lately, for me, reading poetry is like striking a tuning fork. I feel something, something I can’t articulate or name, and I pick up a book that feels like it might be vaguely in the right key. If I’m feeling a little bit moody, geeky, and very sentimental, I’ll pick up Come on All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder, and I’ll skim the pages very fast until something resonates. ZING! I’ve found the note: “which is why I am standing / here exactly, covered in shame and lightning” (Schwinn). Then I’ll read the words or line or (rarely) whole poem over and over again, tuning my heart to that one clear note, feeling that feeling through the words as loud as I can until the feeling is satisfied that it’s been heard.

The problem with this method is that it assumes not only the knowledge that something like this is possible but also access to a large and diverse poetry library and enough knowledge of poetry to navigate it. If I’m feeling the anger of injustice, I might need Adrienne Rich or Muriel Rukeyser. A poem about the Hadron Collider (“Screaming Skull,” Zapruder) isn’t going to help me, and if I’m not familiar with Zapruder’s work, I won’t know that until I’ve read the poem. On the other hand, if I know enough about poetry to reach for Pablo Naruda when I’m in love, ending up with a collection of his political work because that’s all they stock at the library isn’t going to help me, either.

Of course, many people process their emotions with music or visual art or yoga, and it’s relatively easy to stumble onto these things–even if it’s just through musak, paintings at the doctor’s office, or the odd yoga reference on TV. And this raises the question, of course, of how necessary developing this kind of knowledge of poetry is for most people. I process my emotions best with words taken in through my eyes, but it’s possible that I’m just odd. (Okay, maybe a little more than possible.) Still, short of taking classes and picking the brains of booksellers (who may or may not know enough to help), poetry that resonates is hard to find by accident.

This fact has been making me wish for something like a wine guide to poetry, a resource that would make it possible for a reader to say, “I need a gay romance with volcanoes, photography, and an essay on the history of adjectives in poetry,” and end up with a recommendation for The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson.

It would, of course, be a massive undertaking and not one I’m willing to spearhead. (Though, I would be willing to help, if someone took the idea and ran with it.) But I wonder if there’s something that people who do have some knowledge of poetry can do so that people who would benefit from the tuning fork method of reading poetry have a chance of finding what they need–short of tweeting links to Byron during National Poetry Month because clearly that hasn’t been working.