Author Archive

55 Essential Movies for Kids?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014
My Neighbor Totoro: Best All-Ages movie ever?

My Neighbor Totoro: Best All-Ages movie ever?

Recently, Entertainment Weekly posted a list online and then in print, of 55 Movies Every Kid Should See.

It’s an interesting list, and like all lists, not unproblematic. I like how it’s grouped for all ages, then 8, 10, and 12+. I agree with many of the movies on the list, demonstrated by how many of those my 8 and 10yo kids have seen.

[quick break while I count... 35.]

Like all lists, it has some questionable inclusions and some inexplicable omissions. I had two main problems with it.

The first is unforgivable, which is that no film by Hayao Miyazaki is on the list. Adding insult to injury is that sexist crap with phallic imagery like The Little Mermaid is. I’m pretty sure that even Miyazaki’s worst film is better than The Little Mermaid. The Miyazaki films should be a subset of their own, and put in order of excellence and age appropriateness.

In fact, maybe I’ll do just that for a future post.

The second flaw is an organizational one. Putting Christmas movies in with the Gen Pop makes no sense. We binge watch the age-appropriate ones every year. Like Miyazaki films, they deserve their own ordered subset, and perhaps I’ll do that come December.

After the usual post-list outrage was vented, EW posted a follow up of 12 Reader Suggestions, which did give a nod, but only that, to Miyazaki.

A few others that came to my mind that we’ve watched with our boys: The Great Escape, The Right Stuff, The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo.

This illustrates another problem, though with films, not with the list, which is a woeful lack of films by and about women and girls, yet another reason why all the Miyazaki films should be on the list, since they all have strong female characters most of whom are the protagonist.

How about it, parents and cinephiles. What do you think of the list, what’s on it you disagree with, or missing?

“Just Let Me Lie Down” by Kristin Van Ogtrop

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

ogtrop

A friend recommended Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom by Kristin Van Ogtrop. I hesitated, because Van Ogtrop is the editor of Real Simple magazine, of which I’m not a fan.

I call it Fake Simple, because it purports to make life easier by recommending things that either cost a bunch of money (buy a bunch of organizers from The Container Store!), are actually work intensive (clean your bookcases in 12 easy steps!), or are lame (5 different uses for a dryer sheet!).

To its credit, Real Simple has some good articles, and it’s pretty to look at. Similarly, while I had some problems with the book, there was also some stuff that made me laugh, or want to shake my fist in the air and yell, “Yessss!” Structured as a dictionary of terms like “Ignore the Tray”, and “Que Sera Sera-ism”, it’s really a series of short essays. It would be an ideal bathroom book.

The main problem I had is Van Ogtrop is clearly conflicted about working and parenting. It reminded me of that line in Dead Again, where Robin Williams says

Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There’s no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that. If you’re a nonsmoker, you’ll know.

Parenting cannot be the either/or that smoking can. She wants to be a parent with a job? Great! Be that. Don’t waver among celebrating your accomplishments, envying what you imagine the opposite is, then sour-graping that it wouldn’t work for you anyway.

Here’s my advice: Life is complicated. Make your choices and the compromises they entail, live with them, and embrace the messy rich life that results.

On the positive side, there were many things that worked for me, and I could relate to. I gave up the corporate rat race when my elder son had three ear infections in five months of daycare, before he was nine months old. I’m not a “working mother” by most people’s definition anymore, since I am a freelance writer who works from home. But every parent is a working parent, whether they have the luxury to choose to have a job or not, so there’s lots of empathize with and appreciate.

I love that in her entry on “Having it All” which is appropriately in quotes, she says it would include:

Coworkers who never use “reply all”

I also love that her entry to First Do No Harm begins:

What you must constantly remind yourself when you’re tempted to kill one of your children.

Because, while I know there are some parents out there who are horrified by that sentence, I am not one of them. I say, Amen, sister.

every boy between the ages of five and fifteen thinks that putting the clothes next to the hamper is the same thing as putting clothes inside it.

I have a 42yo in my house who also can’t always quite get the clothes in the basket.

List Paradox: The Catch-22 of managing your life. You make a to-do list because it enables you to feel as if you are in conrol of your life and helps you see what you can accomplish. Therefore it boosts your self-esteem. However there will always be more items on your list than you can actually cross off, which makes you feel worse.

I periodically swear off lists. Currently, I’m off the list wagon, but I sense a renunciation coming soon.

Mission Statement: The explanation you are forced to provide to children or coworkers whenever you want the group to do something that is meeting intense resistant. Examples include family trips to museums, budget cutting.

This exactly describes my attempts to institute No-Screen Sundays in our house.

Vanishing Act: The fantasy-life maneuver in which you suddenly disappear.

When I was expecting, a new-dad friend of ours, a stand-up guy with a steady job and a suit, told us about his Vanishing Act fantasy. It was useful advice to know that even someone like him struggled with parenthood and the non-Hallmark-Card-ness of it.

In the end, the best part of this book was it made me look hard at my own choices, and embrace them all over again.

“Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

walden1

Earlier this year I visited Walden Pond with my family. It was early April, there was still ice on the pond, and the day was quiet, cool, and lovely.

In the adjoining bookstore, the standing contradiction to Thoreau’s own “Simplify, Simplify,” which you can get on a T-short or a mug, my husband G and I decided it was long past time to actually read Walden, so we hemmed and hawed and finally bought the lovely Everyman’s edition.

G tried to read it. Gave up. Said it was boring. I chose it for one of my book groups, determined to read it.

G was not wrong. There are parts that are really boring. In fact, I had trouble reading this and staying awake. Given that my two key reading times are after lunch and before bed, that became a problem.

I was also surprised to find him often braggy and insufferable, especially in the opening long section “Economy” as when he said

I have lived some thirty days on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. (8)

The passage in which he exhorts a young farmer to not work so hard and buy less food was also irritating.

In his defense, he was 28 when he began this book, and it’s easy to feel superior when you’re young, white, male, healthy, and can dinner at your mom’s or your friend Emerson’s all the time. A sobering fact was realizing that I’ve lived a few years longer than he did. And his book was full or some beautiful nature writing, as in the ant-war passage in Brute Neighbors, as well as stunning sentences that made me stop to chew them over.

One of my favorites of all: Beware of all enterprise that require new clothes. (21)

There the usual suspects:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (7)

and of course,

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (80)

Part of the beauty of the book is getting a fuller picture of what he means by this, but also knowing that his 2 year experiment was just that–he didn’t (couldn’t?) live his life that way.

Some more worth pondering:

In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high. (24)

the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it (27)

Our life is frittered away by detail. (81)

this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxtury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while but what we have to stand on tip to to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to (93)

rather as I had to do to read Walden.

I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good. (187)

and, expanding on this a few pages later:

We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature. I fear that it may enjoy a certain health of its own that we may be well, yet not pure. (195)

As for why his nature writing has endured, this passage spoke to me:

I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlour of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. (252)

This combined both nature and philosophy:

our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it, and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring. (278)

And of many parts of the conclusion, I’ll select this, though there are many more I flagged:

if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. (286)

In conclusion of my own, Walden is not an easy read, but it’s a rewarding one. If you can sift through the dross and stay awake, there are treasures aplenty.

“Boxers” and “Saints” by Gene Luen Yang

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

boxers saints

As if I don’t have enough book groups–I attend three on a regular basis–a friend asked if I wanted to attend a graphic novel discussion of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints.

Oh, wait, and I’m doing a readalong of Moby Dick, does that count? And reading a string of books along with my boys this summer. So I probably shouldn’t have said yes but did anyway. Story of my life. I set aside Moby and Walden (which, frankly, aren’t that hard to put down, though they kind of put me down–to sleep that is) and picked up Yang’s graphic novels, which are companions and meant to be read together, ideally with Boxers (the big one) first.

Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, a boy in 1898 China who sees his family and village devastated by the effects of foreigners and Christianity. He and others join together, harnessing the power of Chinese gods to defend against the “foreign devils.” But what happens when the tenets of kung fu clash with their attempt to preserve their culture and beliefs?

Saints is the story of Four-Girl, befriended and taken in by Christians. She sees visions, first from Chinese myth and later from Christian myth. She is a pleasingly complex character, and I was more drawn in to her story than to Bao’s. The stories intersect, and I was glad to still have Boxers at hand to refer back to.

Like Yang’s autobiographical American Born Chinese, these contain history, personal stories, and magical realism. I knew little about the Boxer rebellion, and was glad to read about it.

“American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

abc

A friend invited me to a book discussion of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic historical novels Boxers and Saints, so I figured I’d finally seize the synchronicity and pick up Yang’s highly acclaimed, award-winning first graphic novel, American Born Chinese.

The stories of three beings interweave: the ancient Monkey King of China, a boy named Jin Wang moving to a new school in the US, and an American white boy named Danny whose cousin, Chin Kee, visits and embarrasses him on a regular basis.

I enjoyed the exploits of the monkey king and Jin’s story. Less clear to me, and far less enjoyable (though not intended to be) were the episodes with boring Danny and his offensively caricatured cousin Chin Kee, embodying numerous American stereotypes of Asians, and set to a visual laugh track. These sections were discomforting, deliberately confronting racist stereotypes, and felt less balanced than the other two story lines when all three intersected.

I wanted to really like this book, I can see why it’s so highly praised, I question my reasons for merely liking it but in the end, that’s what it was: I liked it.

“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

nerburn

Neither Wolf nor Dog is another one of those, “I probably wouldn’t have read it on my own and only did because of book group and I’m glad I did” books.

Nerburn, a Minnesota writer with a wife and kid, is summoned peremptorily to a distant Native American reservation where an old Lakota man asks him to help write a book. This is that book. It could have been a cringe-worthy cliche of a white-man telling a Native’s story. And since that’s what it is, it always has that obstacle to overcome. As much as it can, it does.

To do that, Nerburn narrates the whole of things–not only the sermons and talks Dan delivers, but the behavior of the hound who travels with them, plus commentary from Dan’s friend Grover when they go on “a little trip” across country. Nerburn also includes an often unflattering narrative of his own comments and thoughts on the trip, as well as his constant desire to transcend the problem of a person of privilege narrating a person of poverty’s story.

Think of that Thoreau fellow. I’ve read some of his books. He went out and lived in a shack and looked at a pond. Now he’s one of your heroes. If I go out and live in a shack and look at a pond, pretty soon I’ll have so many damn social workers beating on my door that I won’t be able to sleep.

They’ll start scribbling in some damn notebook: ‘No initiative. No self-esteem.’ They’ll write reports, get grants, start some government program with a bunch of forms. Say it’s to help us.

That’s what happened with allotment. They said they were trying to help us. They cut up our reservations into chunks and told us we had to be farmers. When we didn’t farm, they said we were lazy. I don’t remember anything about Thoreau being a farmer. He mostly talked about how great it was to do nothing, then he went and ate dinner at his friend’s house. He didn’t want to farm and he’s a hero. We don’t want to farm and we’re lazy. Send us to a social worker…

White people don’t know what they want. They want these big houses and all kinds of things, they they want to be close to the earth, too. They get cabins, they go hunting, they go camping, they say it makes them close to the earth. But they really think it’s okay only because they have all these other things. We Indians, we lie in cabins and hunt, but it’s not okay because we don’t turn around and go back to big houses and big jobs. We don’t need two lives like white people. The only reason that Thoreau fellow is a hero is because he lived two lives, otherwise he just would have been a bum. They would have sent social workers to his house…

For white people there are only two types of Indians. Drunken bums and noble Indians…

The ones who see us all as wise men don’t care about Indians at all. They just care about the idea of Indians. It’s just another way of stealing our humanity and making us into a fantasy that fits the need of white people.

You want to know how to be like Indians? Live close to the earth. Get rid of some of your things. Help each other. Talk to the Creator. Be quiet more. Listen to the earth instead of building things on it all the time.

Don’t blame other people for your troubles and don’t try to make people into something they’re not. (183-5)

I loved spending time with these people. I often wanted to tell Nerburn to shut up and listen, which is what Dan said to him often. Reading this book made me want to shut up and listen. It made me aware of and uncomfortable in my white privilege. It’s one of a string of non-fiction memoir-y books I’m reading now, not a deliberate choice, but one whose surfacing in my life at this point is probably not random.

Ulysses/Infinite Jest

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Some folks I know in the Twin Cities were twittering about a group read of Ulysses for next year’s Bloomsday, 6/16/15, and then on the topic of lit bucket lists, someone else mentioned Infinite Jest, which we could read from summer solstice to autumnal equinox, as they did in the original Infinite Summer readalong that got me to finally read IJ.

Do either of these sound exciting to you to read along and blog or tweet or whatever the heck?

“Lit” by Mary Karr

Monday, June 16th, 2014

lit

A friend of mine recently read an excerpt of something I’m working on. Her response was “Go read Lit by Mary Karr and then get to work.” I’d been intending to read Lit for years (sound familiar? how often do I say this?) and had hesitated because while I liked and admired Karr’s first memoir, Liar’s Club, I hadn’t read the second one, Cherry, and because I’m more than a little compulsive about these things, I didn’t want to jump to #3. But when I found a copy of Lit at the bookstore and not Cherry, I decided to make the jump.

This book hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s a continuation of Karr’s history with her crazy family, but also of her first marriage, early motherhood, and how alcoholism soaked into all of that. It’s also about her struggles to learn and write and earn her way into the things that seem to keep falling into her lap.

But I’m not ready to stop listening to the screwed-up inner voice that’s been ordering me around for a lifetime. My head thinks it can kill me… and go on living without me.

Karr is a terrific chronicler of her life, and I especially appreciated her obvious attempts to play fair in describing a deteriorating marriage. I did feel sometimes her prose was a little too much, e.g. a “snail” of blood on the floor” stopped me and made me debate in my head the pros and cons of the usage, when I really always just wanted to keep reading and find out what happened. I was especially reading to get to the part where she becomes friends (and more) with poor, dead, David Foster Wallace.

I stopped drinking when I was relatively young–21. I’m fortunate to have avoided a lot of the wreckage that Karr details here. But I could relate to enough of it that it was a sobering reminder (not a pun, a deliberate double entendre, as is the title of the book: Lit for drunk, and for Literature) of why I stopped drinking, and why I still don’t. Interesting to me is how many people, including those who knew me back when I was the drunk one, ask me whether I think I could start drinking again, and wonder why I don’t.

This book. This is why I don’t.

Review: “Blessed Are the Dead” by Kristi Belcamino

Friday, June 13th, 2014

hiresbadcover1

Disclaimer: Kristi is a friend and I got to high-five her when she got her book deal for this and its sequels so I’m biased, but trust me, this is a good book.

Blessed Are the Dead by Kristi Belcamino is thumping good read about a serial killer and the newspaper reporter who becomes the Clarice Starling to his Hannibal Lecter. Gabriella is a great main character: flawed, relate-able, hard-nosed and Italian Catholic.

I have some crack sources—cops who call me, and say, “Hey, there’s a dead body in Civic Park, try not to beat the homicide detectives there.

I loved the details of the newsroom and her Catholicism. The killer, based on a real-life one, is chillingly credible. Plus there’s humor, romance, and family drama throughout that elevates this well beyond a by-the-numbers thriller. I can’t wait for the sequel, Blessed Are the Meek!

Blessed Are the Dead
is only available electronically for now, but it’s only $1.99, and a fast, fun read with heft. Go, buy, read, andsupport a writer!

“Blessed are the Dead” by Kristi Belcamino

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

hiresbadcover

I haven’t read this yet because it was just released this morning, but my friend and fellow writer Kristi Belcamino’s first book, Blessed Are the Dead, is released! Go, buy, read, and then we can chat about it. You know how I love to chat about books.

“The Wisdom of Yoga” by Stephen Cope

Friday, June 6th, 2014

wisdom

Stephen Cope’s The Wisdom of Yoga is another book I was prompted to read after appreciating Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing and Devotion. Cope is a yoga teacher and a writer with a background in counseling. The book is a reading of some parts of the ancient Yoga Sutra by Patanjali, interspersed with case studies of Cope and other yoga practitioners he worked with.

The Yoga Sutra is about yoga the life pursuit, not yoga as we commonly understand it in the west, a form of fitness. It describes ways to be, think, and act. Cope’s investigations into the text are balanced with the real-world life issues of the people he describes and this makes the book read-able and enjoyable, where an examination of only the text would have been too dry and esoteric. I’m hard pressed to come up with a good excerpt of this book. Much of its loveliness is in its interweaving of quotes by thinkers, dreamers, and mystics through the ages. Perhaps it’s best to use the quote he starts with, because Cope’s book is looking back to the 3000 year old tradition of yoga through a 2000 year old text, but using it as a lens to examine the modern struggles of a handful of people. Past and present meet and merge.

There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time– or even knew selflessness or courage or literature– but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. Quote from Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being

I would say this is not for beginning yogins or as a starting point to learn more about yoga, but for those who have been on the mat a while and are interested in learning about the other 7 of 8 branches of yoga, and comparing and contrasting them with other traditions of meditation and practice in Buddhism and Christianity.

Edited to add: one thing I noticed about Cope and the other yogins he writes about on their path to learning. I don’t think any were currently married, and none had small children. It is easier, perhaps only possible?, to actively seek when one is less attached in the world.

“Skim” and “This One Summer” by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

Friday, June 6th, 2014

I picked up the graphic novel This One Summer by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki at the comic book store, flipped through it and thought it looked good. Then I flipped it over, and something about the range of blurbs sold me. Hope Larson and Craig Thompson are graphic novelists whose work I admire. Sheila Heti wrote a critically acclaimed book that a few of my friends really hated. Daniel Handler is Lemony Snicket. The range of blurbers, as well as their sincere sounding blurbs, made me put it in the weekly to-buy pile. I devoured the book, and thought it would have held its own among some of the young-adult classics from The Summer of Shelf Discovery I did a few years ago.

thisonesummer

This One Summer is told from Rose’s view. She and her parents go to Awago Beach every summer. But this year, as she’s stepping away from childhood and dipping her toe into moody adolescence, her parents are fighting, her friend Windy is provoking, and everything seems to be changing. As the book progresses we learn more about why Rose’s mom is so distant, and get insight into a drama the local teens are enmeshed in. We discover, with Rose, lovely things, sad things, disturbing things. The book deftly evokes that awkward age, and the push/pull between teen and adult weirdness and longing for childhood innocence and fun.

skim

After I finished, I sought out the cousins’ first book, Skim. The main character is also a young girl’s coming-of-age novel. Skim is the unkindly bestowed and stoically endured nickname for Kim, a not slim girl in Canada who is interested in Wicca and the tarot. She also has to manage well-meaning but unhelpful parents, a new crush, and school society after a tragedy intrudes. Her friendships at the girls’ school she attends ebb and flow, with mean girls and cliques and other slices of life.

This is the thing about school dances. They make like it’s supposed to be this other-worldly thing, but really it’s just the people you see every day dressed up, standing in the gym in the dark with Red Hot Chili Peppers playing.

Both books are lovely to look at and well written. They touch on sexuality, sexual orientation, friendship, and parents, the often fraught battlefields of the pre-teen and teen years. I’m glad to have read them both.

“Devotion” by Dani Shapiro

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

devotion

I was so moved and engaged by Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, that I sought out books she referred to in it by Jane Kenyon, and her earlier memoir, Devotion, about her tangled quest for clarity in spiritual matters.

Shapiro skillfully weaves together pieces of her past and present. Her observant Orthodox Jewish father, her atheist and difficult mother, her own practice of yoga, her son’s infant near-death experience, and her own attempts to…I’m not sure what to put here. Figure it all out? Make meaning of it? Because really, her spiraling, back-and-forth, round-and-round memoir does not acknowledge the kind of meaning or comfort usually found in devotional memoirs. Her memoir is ambivalent, in the true meaning of the word, pulled in many directions.

We can’t see what’s coming. We can’t know it. All we have is our hope that all will be well, and our knowledge that it won’t always be so. We live in the space between this hope and this knowledge. (239)

I loved this book, the writing, the stories of her life, and her struggle to make meaning and acknowledgement of the ephemeral nature of any meaning that does become clear. I think I’ll be going back to all Shapiro’s books, from the beginning, and working my way back up to these. If a mark of a good book is one that makes me think, and want to learn, these two short books pack a substantial emotional and intellectual wallop. (I may come back to edit this last poorly constructed sentence. It’s not elegant and mellifluous, but it says what I mean.)

“The Children of Men” by P.D. James

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

children

I watched the movie Children of Men several years ago, and thought it was really good, and that I should read the book, The Children of Men, by P.D. James. I chose it for my reading group Gods and Monsters. Even though I’d watched the movie years ago, the plot and visual details had remained with me. As I read the book, I kept wondering, where is this, what is that, why is or isn’t something here? The book, I found, was vastly different from the movie, so I had to turn off my memory and go along for the ride, and a wild one it was.

In the book, Theo is a 50 something history professor whose cousin is the leader of 2021 England. In the future, humans are barren, and no children have been born since 1995.Theo becomes involved with a small dissident group and the books ticks along as a thriller from there, but with the disquieting vision of a barren society, of what might happen if we stopped being able to choose whether to reproduce, and of what people freedoms people give up for comfort and pleasure.

Without the hope of posterity, for our race if not for ourselves, without the assurance that we being dead yet live, all pleasures of the mind and senses sometimes seem to me no more than pathetic and crumbling defences shored up against our ruin.

I decided not to watch the film again before the discussion of the book, as it’s so different. The movie was loud, violent, and post-apocalyptic. I’m fascinated that the film chose to diverge so wildly from the book, and look forward to discussing the book, then re-evaluating the film on its own merits.

The book stands on its own, quietly suggestive of a skewed future. It’s a coming of age tale but for a man of 50, who reminded me somewhat of the narrator of Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending, and who has a relationship with a cousin that felt very similar to the brothers in Herman Koch’s The Dinner. The ending is an interesting one, very “Lady or the Tiger,” disquieting, and with much left up to the reader to decide how things will play out. I am still ruminating on the ideas and images of the book.

“A Hundred White Daffodils” by Jane Kenyon

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

daffs

In Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, the Perils and Pleasures of the Creative Life. she quoted the poet Jane Kenyon a few times, and this one hunk of writing advice made me sit up and attend:

Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.

These words rang so true for me I searched them to their source. A Hundred White Daffodils is a posthumous collection of Kenyon’s essays, poetry translations, and one previously unreleased poem assembled by her husband, poet Donald Hall.

I was delighted to find this advice was number 8 in a list titled “Everything I Know About Poetry (Notes for a Lecture)” and the previous 7 and a codicil are all worth reading as well. But I’m not going to write the rest of them out. Seek out the book, and some of Kenyon’s poems. I never would have but for the Shapiro book, and I now have this whole, bright glowing corner of poetry to explore.

“Lexicon” by Max Barry

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

lex

This was for one of the book groups I attend, Books and Bars. I hadn’t heard of Max Barry’s Lexicon when it was selected for May, and when I saw the effusion of blurbs from trusted literary sources, I was surprised how I missed it.

The novel opens on a man named Wil being chased in an airport by two other men. They are in turn chased by others, and afraid of someone they call “Wolf.” Exciting, ’splodey things happen, then Wil’s story alternates with that of Emily Ruff, a street urchin from San Francisco. All this is part of a larger mystery about a group of people called poets who wield the power of persuasion using the science of language and specific words and verbals constructions. The story jumps back and forth in time, between characters, with some bits in between about privacy, spin control, and data gathering. I found it had tremendous forward momentum, and became progressively more resentful of people and things that got in the way of me finishing the book as all the pieces came together.

“I just read them for fun.”
“Dictionaries?”
“Yes.”
“That doesn’t sound like fun. That sounds awful.”
“Awful used to mean ‘full of awe.’ The same meaning as awesome. I learned that from a dictionary.”
He blinked.
“See?” She said. “Fun.”

I found it a smart fast read. Some others at the discussion thought it was full of plot holes, or predictable, or silly, or a screenplay for an action movie not a work of literature. My husband G. Grod said he can’t believe no one mentioned how similar it is to Snow Crash, so I guess I’ll be reading that again soon.

One description of art is something that changes one, as opposed to entertainment, which does not. I don’t think they’re opposites and I don’t think this as an empty thriller, either. I think Emily was a good main character with an interesting development, there were parts that made me laugh aloud. I am changed in that I am not going to be taking any internet quizzes or answering any marketing research again. Am I a dog person or a cat person?

None of your beeswax.

“The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

compass

The Golden Compass is another book my 10yo is reading in school that I decided to read along. Unfortunately, he is restrained to 2 chapters every 2 days and asked not to read ahead, and I found that it is very hard not to devour this book. It has a very high want-to-know-what-happens-next quotient.

Lyra Belacqua is a pre-teen girl raised mostly by male scholars in an alternative world’s Oxford University. Her uncle Lord Asriel is her benefactor, but sneaky Lyra is soon off on adventure, involving missing children, a beautiful temptress named Mrs. Coulter, and figuring out who Lord Asriel is. Oh, and there are animal familiars called daemons, warlike polar bears, witches, mysterious Dust with a capital D, and more.

Pullman has crafted a rich and fascinating alterna-world. An avowed atheist, the author is trying to tell a mythic adventure story without relying on religion, other than to send a few barbed arrows at Catholicism.

“Witches have never worried about Dust. All I can tell you is that where there are priests, there is fear of Dust.”

But the resulting portrayal, that it’s all fate, doesn’t quite jive with the conflict of the plot.

“We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not,” said the witch, “or die of despair.”

Lyra is smart and strong, but as portrayed in this book, she’s just following THE path fate has laid out for her, not one of many possible paths, and this bugs me because how much adventure can there be, if things are all mapped out, even in just the author’s head? Lyra’s alethiometer, the golden compass of the title, is a device that tells truth of the past present and future. I find it too pat and convenient to have something so absolute.

“Holes” by Louis Sachar

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

As a parent, and as a reader, I know I’m supposed to read the same books my kids do, and talk to them about it. But because I let them choose what they want to read, they read a lot of stuff I simple can’t summon up the gumption to read along with: Garfield, Geronimo Stilton, Big Nate, Pokemon, and on and on.

Hmm. Maybe that can be there someday band name: Pokemon and On?

Also, when I have tried to discuss books with them, they clam up. Or, in one memorable sad case, I kept asking one of the boys about the bomber in The Westing Game. And finally, he said, “Oh, it was X” and then refused to talk about it more. And X was the wrong character! My head nearly exploded.
holes

But that was a while when the 10yo said he was reading Holes, which has been recommended to me by umpteen gazillion people, I thought it was time to act like a responsible reading parent and read it too.

Holes is about a kid named Stanley Yelnats who is wrongly sentenced to a juvenile detention camp where they are required to dig holes. Interspersed with Stanley’s present misery is his backstory, as well as a backstory about a woman named Kate. The book is simply written, and proceeds at a good clip as all the stories meet and mesh, then end on a hopeful note. My 10yo, who is sitting here reading over my shoulder as I write this, said that what he found interesting about Holes was how the reader knows so much more than Stanley does, and as the stories crossover, it makes sense to the reader but poor Stanley is clueless about the significance of the things he’s done.

I can see why Holes is popular, and recommended. But I found it lacked a complexity that makes a book good for both kids and adults. It’s good, but I didn’t find it great, so if any readers out there did, I’d love to hear your perspectives.

Two Graphic Novels

Friday, May 16th, 2014

I am trying to catch up on my book blogging, so I may do a couple of combo-pack posts like this one. I’m doing my comic-book and graphic-novel reading in between bigger books, so they’re kind of like mortar in a brick wall.

iron

I’m really enjoying the current run of Wonder Woman, and the latest graphic novel collection is volume 3, Iron. Wonder Woman is trying to figure out what shenanigans the Greek gods are up to, and where the heck Zeus has gone. I’m really enjoying the art, and the portrayal of the gods.

nemo

Speaking of bad-a$$ female protagonists, the latest novel in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen features Janni, the original Captain Nemo’s daughter, who goes after the men who kidnapped her daughter. Much of this is in German, though it’s not impossible to follow, since as we all know, Nazis are bad.

“My Life in Middlemarch” by Rebecca Mead

Monday, May 12th, 2014

middlemarch

Every so often my reading dance card gets so filled up I swear off borrowing library books other than ones for my three book groups. But then I read a review of a book that sounds so good I just can’t help myself, and I’m off to the races with my library queue again. As soon as I finished reading a buttload of books about Hamlet, Rebecca Mead’s memoir/literary appreciation My Life in Middlemarch was next up. Mead uses her lifelong love of George Eliot’s Middlemarch as a frame to weave in a biography of Eliot and a memoir of her own.

On [my] first encounter, I identified completely with Miss Dorothea Brooke, an ardent young gentlewoman who years for a more significant existence. This identification was in spite of the difference between our social stations. Dorothea lives at Tipton Grange, a large estate equipped with household staff. My family lived in a modest house with a small garden, built in the 1950s, and I only had to go back a few generations to find ancestors who had belonged to the household staff on properties like the Brookes’.

It’s been a few years since I read Middlemarch, but the details came back, and I was reminded why I loved Middlemarch when I read it, and affirmed that I want to re-read it, as well as all of Eliot’s works.

Mead is a good guide to the novel and its author’s life, though her own life is drawn more sketchily in the book than is Eliot’s. Also, Mead’s portrait of George Eliot’s relationship with George Lewes is unequivocally loving, which didn’t square with my memory, and sent me back to Marghanita Laski’s book, George Eliot and Her World, which Mead refers to in her book. There is a reference that Eliot may have discovered indiscretions of Lewes after he died, which in turn might have been one factor in her perhaps o’er hasty second marriage. Mead, in spite of an impressive array of research on the author and her works, doesn’t mention the possibility of Lewes’ indiscretion. Whether because she didn’t find the evidence persuasive, or because she has such affection for her subject that she didn’t want to cast aspersions, I don’t know.