When I was 22 and a lonely graduate student in Massachusetts, one of my professors, the writer Jay Neugeboren, gave me a new book for Christmas. I hardly knew him, but he knew my writing. He gave me Flannery O'Connor's Collected Stories, not just because he thought they would help me as a writer, but because he knew the gift of beautiful prose, given to someone on the edge of loving words and their arrangements, was an invaluable present.
Twenty-three years later, I am a novelist and professor, and now I am assembling my gift list of treasured books. I search for them throughout the year, at two-for-one sales in bookstores, on the discount shelves, or sometimes among the many books I receive as a writer from friends or publishers.
I gave all my students novels or short story collections last holiday season, chosen as I got to know them and their writing and their interests. I gave three copies of Michael Jaime-Becerra's fine collection Every Night is Ladies' Night, set in El Monte, Calif., (not far from me here in Riverside) to Chicano student writers, so they could see the fictional landscape Jaime-Becerra created out of his hometown. I gave Veronica Chambers' When Did You Stop Loving Me' — a novel featuring a father and daughter in 1970s Brooklyn, an indelible portrait of the place and time and the inability to love — to a student writing about a difficult marriage.
Students aren't the only ones on my list. Our corner market, named Kawa, which has transformed with our neighborhood into a tough place to live and work, is owned by a Chinese immigrant couple whom I've known for fifteen years. Wendy and I were pregnant at the same time. A few years ago, she began to curve herself over a paperback during her 12 hours at the cash register. I asked what she was reading. "I try to teach myself English," she said. "It's hard." She was reading Jackie Collins.
Sometime later, I gave her one of my favorite novels: Lan Samantha Chang's Inheritance, a historical novel spanning decades of Chinese history. Wendy looked at it apprehensively, "It's long, and the words are long, too."
It took her months to finish, in the spaces of time between handing people change for malt liquor and candy and, for me, shrimp chips. She kept a Chinese-American dictionary beside her, and she wrote pages of words and notes. When she gave it back to me a few weeks ago, her eyes glinted with tears in the light from the neon Budweiser sign where we stood.
"I loved that book," she said. "It was like life. Sometime sad, sometime happy. But like life."
"It's yours," I said, but she shook her head.
"Give to someone else," she said. "And maybe you find one more for me."
I will. But first, I need to work on a special assemblage of books for Christmas. One of my favorite student writers, 25, blond, his arms decorated with tattoos and his writing decorated with citrus groves and homeless characters in the landscape of here, of Riverside, needs books. He recently told me he has cancer, and apologized for his lateness to our fiction workshop. He arrived after his first four hours of chemotherapy. He was brusque and candid.
"I sit there for four hours."
"Can you read?" I asked
He nodded. I could see that he had to read, that reading would be the only thing to get him through this. The following day, I gave him three of Kem Nunn's amazing and dark novels of rough life and surfing and the desert in California, and Stewart O'Nan's new novel, The Good Wife, about a woman who waits years for her husband to be released from prison. I gave this student O'Nan's earlier novel, The Speed Queen, last year, and he said it changed his life.
That is what writers pray someone will say, and teachers pray a student will say, but it's also part of our human legacy. Movies, music and novels are how we know each other's lives, how we believe each other's conversations, how we enter each other's imaginations, and often, there is no other way but those forms of art to travel elsewhere, into another world.
While my student sits there with chemicals floating through his body, his eyes move across the pages, I know. When I gave him the first bag, I told him that I had planned on putting homemade cookies in there too, but he said, "I can't eat. Food just sits there in my stomach." Then he held out his hand for the books.