The Narcissus Project — Progress Report

May 31, 2016

Back in February, I made a plan to shape and focus my reading more intentionally. I took as my pattern Eleanor Catton’s Horoeka Grant, a program intended to give New Zealand writers time to read exclusively and then to report on what they had learned. I named my version The Narcissus Project, after the flowers I used to have in abundance in my backyard and that I miss sorely.

I established some parameters: I would read material I already had, books that had been acquired, then put aside to lie dormant, like daffodil bulbs.

I settled on 16 titles, representing almost 4000 pages of reading and more than $300 cash outlay. I put them in a neat row on a separate table in front of the wall of bookshelves in my home library/family room/pretty-much-Ron’s-study now. And I began.

As with many of my projects, I wobbled away from the written plan while keeping the spirit true. Of the 16 titles I listed, I read only four. That is because one thing led to another, one idea sparked another, a random recommendation made me seek a particular author or work. I did not buy any additional books, relying instead on the library, online journals, print and electronic copies of The New Yorker, other magazines and anthologies I had on hand that offered an author or a story I knew I had to read. As I had planned, I did read Allison Joseph’s My Father’s Kites all in one afternoon, beginning to end, the first time I had ever done that with a poetry collection.

In all, I read 4 nonfiction books, 22 essays, 5 novels, 1 story collection, 51 individual short stories, and 1 poetry collection. Of the individual short stories, each was by a different author, 31 of them chosen one each day as part of National Short Story Month, a celebration that seems to have lost the “national” part but which remains something that engages me. In the past, I have counted 10 individual short stories or essays as the equivalent of a book. By that reckoning, then, I read 18 books in the 14 weeks of the project. Compare that with the 4 books I read in the 9 weeks of 2016 before I embarked on The Narcissus Project, and I’d have to say that if one of my aims was to read more and to read more widely, then that aspect of the project was a success.

So far, I have addressed only the quantity of what I read. The quality, and what I learned from each piece, is another matter. When I look over the list, I have trouble remembering what some of the stories were about, exactly. This is particularly true of a Lydia Davis story, “Head, Heart,” in her collection Varieties of Disturbance. I don’t own the book, but I do have a cloudy recollection of having read the story at a library, probably from its having been mentioned in something else I was reading.

But I did enjoy, remember, and learn from most of what I read. The best nonfiction book was, without question, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot’s extraordinary account of the difficult life and painful death from cervical cancer of a poor black woman in Baltimore from whom tissue samples were taken that resulted in an immortal cell line that has contributed immeasurably to scientific knowledge and advancements in medicine.  The best pieces of fiction I read were Colum McCann’s “Sh’kol,” in Best American Short Stories 2015, and Ann Packer’s “Her Firstborn,” in her collection Swim Back to Me. They are both about lost children, a theme that almost always captures and holds my attention.

There were forgettable reads as well. Just Breathe, a novel by Susan Wiggs, was formulaic and predictable, best characterized as “chick lit.” I kept reading only to find out who set the fire, and when the revelation came, it was not surprising, and even anti-climactic. Also, I can’t remember who it was, nor really much else about the plot, except that it was a typical “woman at a crossroads in her life moves back to her hometown and discovers love again.”

In nonfiction, Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Accidental Saints was a disappointment. She’s the iconoclastic pastor of The House for All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran congregation in Denver. I like her theology, but I found her book repetitive, making the same points she has made in other material of hers that I have read. I finished it only because it was the book we examined in my congregation’s Lenten spiritual study.

The question now is, where do I go from here? Life is what happens when you are making other plans, they say. In November, I announced in this space that any plans I had to develop as a fiction writer during the 2015-2016 academic year were going to have to be shoehorned around a much more serious and uncertain concern: my husband’s treatment for and recovery from Stage 2 lung cancer. And then I said no more.

I am happy now to give a progress report on that. The treatment, two courses of chemotherapy and one of radiation, were astonishingly successful, reducing his tumor to a small section of dead tissue with no spread to other areas. This outcome was, however, not without its complications. On Easter Sunday, with only three more chemo treatments to go, Ron was hospitalized with pneumonia and flu. He was treated with IV antibiotics, and then oral antibiotics at home. The final three chemo treatments were deemed unnecessary, given what his doctors saw on a PET scan once he had recovered enough for that procedure. But now he is experiencing a profound fatigue from which recovery is very slow, day by day, sometimes one step forward and half a step back. He continues to be a model patient who asks little and follows the medical protocols: rest, breathe, hope.

He will be recovered enough by August to be able to look after himself fully, perhaps with a little help with logistics from family and friends, and I can head once again to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. That is the only long distance Gallivanting I am doing this summer. All other trips will be closer to home, and closer to my heart: our grandson, Joseph Angelo April, will be born sometime in the next two weeks. His parents, our daughter, Lynn, and her husband, Matt, live 90 minutes from us. The hospital where she will deliver is only 70 minutes. I have a Go Bag packed and ready.

Welcome to the Green Blade Rising summer.

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