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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Northeast Minneapolis Art-a-Whirl 2014

May 12th, 2014

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Did you know Northeast Minneapolis’ Art-a-Whirl is the biggest artist open-studio event in the US? And it’s this upcoming weekend, from Friday May 16 to Sunday May 18. Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about Whirling with little ones, which I wrote about for Minnesota Monthly’s TC Taste blog here. But it’s a good set of links even if you don’t have little ones. And even if you don’t live in the Twin Cities, you can check out the art online.

And, please do. Because in writing that post, I put all the links in my draft, and they didn’t copy over to the final, so I had to enter them all again. Which was a giant pain. So go, read, and click the links, to justify all that hard, hard work, if you would, kind readers!

“From Room to Room” poems by Jane Kenyon

May 12th, 2014

I am a novel gal. I will occasionally dabble in short stories and non-fiction, but I rarely venture into poetry. Last month, I read Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. In it she quotes poet Jane Kenyon, and writes a little about Kenyon’s sadly short life. So, going by the transitive property of liking stuff, I liked Dani Shapiro’s book, and Dani Shapiro likes Jane Kenyon’s poetry, then there’s a good chance I will like Kenyon’s poetry. So I picked up a copy of Kenyon’s first collection, From Room to Room. And, voila, I liked it!

Kenyon’s collection sketches out a story of leaving one home and moving to another in New England. The poems are short, and deceptively easy to read. They invited me in for what felt like a short stay, but I lingered on each one rolling the words around in my head. Some are sad, some sweet, some funny. One of my favorites was this:

The Shirt

The shirt touches his neck
and smoothes over his back.
It slides down his sides.
It even goes down below his belt–down into his pants.
Lucky shirt.

Hamlet, the Books

May 9th, 2014

jenkins

I chose Hamlet for one of my books groups last month, and I believe it was the least attended session to date, only possibly rivaled by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Draw your own inferences. But I will probably not choose another play as a book selection. I enjoyed it, but it’s obviously not a crowd pleaser, which is curious for one of the most lasting works of literature in the world, no?

One of the big reasons I picked Hamlet for April was that the big local theater, The Guthrie, along with The Acting Company, was putting on both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern these past few weeks. Reading a play as a book seems silly without seeing it performed. It’s rather like reading musical notes on a page but not hearing them played. Over about three weeks, I watched 7 Hamlet adaptations on DVD, a few related DVDs, read the play and a comprehensive introduction and set of long notes, a graphic adaptation of the novel, an excerpt of a big book on Shakespeare, and a little book on Hamlet. All this before seeing a live production. Like that old Palmolive commercial, I was SOAKING in it. In fact, so saturated am I that I don’t even know where to begin in writing about all these. Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit. And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.

Heh.

In general, Hamlet the play is one of the most lasting works of literature in the world, and the character of Hamlet rivals only perhaps Jesus as the most known literary character ever. So if you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it recently, or haven’t seen a DVD, then you’re missing out. This is one of the few times when it’s as good to watch the movie as it is to read the play, because it’s a PLAY! It was written to be seen! If you are interested in finding out more, here’s what I found to be helpful (or not).

My preferred edition of Hamlet is the Arden with the introduction by Harold Jenkins, a cranky old white man who is hilariously dismissive of the work of other people he doesn’t agree with. And he’s not deadeningly repetitive, like another cranky old white man I’ll mention later. This edition of this play is going in my apocalypse backpack (which is the name of one of my imaginary bands).

Hoping to get my two sons, who are 8 and 10, in on the fun (my husband and I were reading and nerdishly obsessing over this together. Me: Jane Eyre::G. Grod: Hamlet.) My first attempt was a success, the 30 minute adaptation that’s included in Shakespeare: The Animated Series. They liked it!

Less popular with both the 10yo and me was Classics Illustrated’s Hamlet. Bad art that did nothing to illuminate the text.

Next, it’s foolish to study Shakespeare without reading Harold Bloom, one of the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholars. Alas, he is the cranky old white man who repeats himself ad nauseum. He makes interesting arguments and insights. AND THEN MAKES THEM AGAIN AND AGAIN. I read Bloom’s introduction to his

Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, the chapter on Hamlet, and the last chapter. I might be able to save you some trouble: Bloom thinks Shakespeare wrote the ur-Hamlet, the earlier missing version of the play that most scholars think was written by Thomas Kyd. Shakespeare through characters like Falstaff and Hamlet, showed a psychological interior life that had not been shown before, and helped to establish it as part of what we consider human. Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character are two different things that are often equated (or conflated, as they say in adadem-ese). He repeats these points and makes some more in his shorter book,

Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, spending less time on the ur-Hamlet bee in his bonnet. Overall, he says some good stuff, some outrageous and ridiculous stuff, and some outright offensive stuff (he is shockingly dismissive of the work of women, especially non-white women). As you might have divined, I have a respect/hate relationship with Bloom. I find him necessary, but unpleasant.

But this is just me, a cranky middle-aged white woman, so your mileage may vary. My good friend and Shakespeare fan M, who blogs at Mental Multivitamin, has more respect and less vitriol for Bloom than I do, so check out her opinions for another take.

And, as this is so long, I’ll do a separate entry on the movies and the play.

“The Luminaries” by Eleaonor Catton

May 9th, 2014

luminaries

Holy cats, y’all, I am farther behind on my book blogging than I thought. Better get crackin’.

Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize winning The Luminaries went down in a contentious first match of The Morning News 2014 Tournament of Books to a short indie book, Hill William, by a guy who, on Facebook, seemed to dismiss ToB readers as soccer moms. As a soccer mom, I took offense to this. Soccer moms can be intelligent readers. And in one of those weird things that happens as part of the ToB, I read the match, and the comments, interested in reading The Luminaries and utterly uninterested in reading Hill William.

How to describe an 834-page book in brief? Well, not with the adjective Dickensian, though many reviewers did? It’s sprawling, fascinating, and weird, rotating among a huge cast of characters, each of whom represents one of the twelve zodiac signs or one the planets known at the time of the story, circa 1866. Set during New Zealand’s gold rush, there is a dead man, a mysterious collapsed woman, and a missing man. Who these three are, and how they related and interact with the others, is told in chapters of decreasing length, as in a waning moon. Some of the particulars of the astrology escaped me, but many of the others, as in which character represented which sign or planet, was helpful in cementing the characters in my mind. This is a long, complicated book to get lost in. It reminded me of Bleak House, The Woman in White, Jonathan Strong and Mr. Norrell, and many more. Catton has said in interviews that she was also influenced by the long-form storytelling of current DVD sets. Was the conceit about the astrology helpful, hurtful, or neutral? Readers disagree, though I appreciated this elaboration by one of the Booker judges who picked it.

This is a good book for winter, a good book for a long trip. Probably not a beach read. But if you like to get lost in long, mysterious, Victorian novels, then this one is worth 834 pages of your time.

“The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride

May 9th, 2014

goodlordbird

I didn’t finish James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, the book that won the 2014 Morning News Tournament of Books till after it won the ToB and then some other big award, I forget which one (The National Book Award). I’d borrowed the book from the library and it was due before I was to leave on Spring Break when I was about 80 pages from the end. I conscientiously returned it to the library for the next patron–you’re welcome, whoever you are–and figured I would either buy it on the trip, or hang out at a bookstore for a while and finish it. I ended up feeling like a deadbeat because I went to the bookstore TWICE to finish it, and should have just bought it, but was feeling mulish about it for whatever reason, and did not.

McBride’s book is outlandish historical fiction about a young black boy slave mistaken for a girl who is adopted into the company of John Brown, the Kansas abolitionist. The character of John Brown leapt off the page, sometimes horrifying, sometimes delightful, always fascinating.

He was like everybody in war. He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.

McBride goes on a fanciful, but also dead serious, tour of a point in history I knew little about. The level of satire at times was astonishing. McBride’s portrayal of Frederick Douglass raised a lot of critical eyebrows. And yet it was this daring, and the truths the fictional portrayals pointed at, that kept me wrapped up in the story till the end. And now that I’ve written this, I feel even worse about not buying the book, as this one is certainly worth owning, and re-reading.

Postscript: I just remembered one of the big reasons I didn’t want to buy the book was because I’d brought Eleanor Catton’s doorstop, The Luminaries, along with me to read next, and couldn’t justify adding a book I was nearly finished with to my cross-country luggage. And, I am not a fan of e-readers, even if they do seem idea for this situation.

“My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag” by Jolie Kerr

May 2nd, 2014

barfMy husband read something on the inter webs about Jolie Kerr’s My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag and Other Questions You Can’t Ask Martha. Whatever it was, it spurred him to borrow it from the library. He quickly abandoned it, though, because it made him feel bad about the level of filth we live in these days.

I used to be a clean person, like Jolie Kerr. I’d pretreat my laundry and clean the bathroom once week. While my house might get messy, it would not be actually dirty. Then, I had a child. And another child. And a nasty bout of depression. I learned that being a clean person wasn’t as important to me as things like reading, writing, and sleeping. Thus, cleaning fell on the priority list. And it’s been falling ever since.

After G. abandoned the book, I picked it up. It also made me feel bad about our dirt. But rather than overwhelming me, it made me want to be a cleaner person. It also made me laugh.

If you find that you have sticky spills to contend with–honey is a common offender–grab a rag and soak it in hot water, as hot as you can stand. Wring it out and press it on the honey; the hot water will liquefy it, rendering it easier to wipe up. If there are greasy spills, such as oil, ammonia is the ticket. Just be sure that you’re not using another product that contains bleach, as bleach + ammonia = sudden death. Okay, not really sudden death, but the two in concert produce a lethal gas, and that is no joke. You’ll hear me bang on about this again because it’s a super important cleaning lesson to learn: NEVER MIX BLEACH WITH AMMONIA. It will kill you. And then you’ll be dead, and your house won’t be clean, and people will judge you, THE END. (12)

Note, I did not say, it galvanized me into cleaning my whole house!

Note, I also did not say, it made me want to be a clean person again. CleanER. Little steps.

Kerr’s book is probably targeted at 20 somethings living on their own for the first time. But,with kids and a busy life, I’ve regressed, and can definitely use a refresher. Kerr is funny yet thorough as she guides the reader through the proper way to clean the kitchen, bathroom, and house. She offers detailed analysis of stains, and what to use on them. I tore through this useful little book in a plane flight, often laughing aloud. Then I returned it to the library early and bought my own copy.

In conclusion my house is somewhat cleaner, except for a couple windows which are WAY cleaner. I spilled some navy nail polish on my favorite tablecloth and mostly got it out. I am going to try and be a cleaner person. After I read my book, take a nap, play with my kids, and do some writing.

Heh.

Well, crud. I was going to show before and after pictures of the windows and tablecloth, and now I can’t find them on my computer. Gah. Will have to update later and should also put in funny quote from book to further entice you to get it.

“Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life” by Dani Shapiro

April 30th, 2014

stillwriting

I should not have bought this book, and I did not want to like it. My roof is leaking, my car is groaning, and I do not have money to spend on anything not necessary.

Please, don’t protest that books are always necessary. Books in general, yes, are necessary. Buying books is not. That’s what libraries are for. Books, specifically—especially—ones that are hardcover and full price and on a topic on which I have several unread books at home? This book was not necessary.

But I bought it anyway.

One of my possible epitaphs is “Wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but did it anyway.” That, and “Mistakes were made.” Which is pretty much the same thing.

So why did I buy Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro? Out of superstition, and by promising myself I could return it if (when) I didn’t like it. The superstition is because Shapiro is one of the literary mentors in a program I I recently applied to. Or, more accurately, I applied to again. It’s an annual writing competition, and by my conservative estimate, which I could spelunk in my files to verify, though I WILL NOT, I have applied to this program five times before. Maybe more. But that’s even more depressing, so I WILL NOT look it up. (Now. Maybe later.) Every time I’ve applied, I’ve felt confident about my application. And every time, I didn’t even make the first cut, much less the finals. Groucho Marx might say I should stop trying to get into a club that clearly doesn’t want me as a member.

It’s part of the particular madness of writers that we persist in trying, even in the face of continual silence and rejection. There are so many stories out there about writer X who papered his whole house with rejections until the critical acceptance, or writer Y whose manuscript was pulled out of the slush pile. Hope springs eternal. Yet, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the strong possibility I am not being picked for this program, or published, or whatever, because my writing is just not that good. Not bad, necessarily. But just not THAT good.

This may be true, and it is not a comfortable thing to sit with. If I am able to stop wallowing for a moment, though, the next question arises: so, what? Two possibilities present themselves: quit, or keep trying to be a better writer. Thus far, I’ve always chosen the latter.

Back to why I bought this book. Because I was in a bookstore, because I thought I would read it, not like it, return it, and thus give myself a nice cushion for the disappointing news I’ve heard five times before, that I’m not a good fit, but good luck and keep trying! I was pre-planning my sour grapes.

A strange thing happened when I read Shapio’s book, though. I could not resist it. Her quiet, steady, honest advice on how to write and keep writing, wormed its way into my brain, my heart, my self. I laughed. I recognized the desire, so often postponed, to get to the business of writing. I recognized myself as a writer.

We’re outcasts and loners, more comfortable being out of step than part of a group. If pressed, you’d find that most of us had not pledged sororities or fraternities in college. We don’t tend to be members of clubs…This prickly overly sensitive, socially awkward group of people is my tribe. If you’re a writer, they’re yours as well. (185-6)

I will probably not be accepted into the program. This is not (just) false modesty, or trying to lower my expectations. They get about 200 applications for six spots. The odds are not in my favor. I hoped by reading Shapiro’s works that I would be unimpressed to dull the pain of expected rejection, Instead, I read a book by a writer who feels like she’d be an ideal mentor for the manuscript I’m working on. So it will be all the more painful if I get my annual rejection email. Yet, I don’t need to get into the program to have her as a writing mentor. She’s written this book, two other memoirs, and several novels. There are many paths up the mountain. Her stuff is there to help anyone who reads it, who hears it, as I did. In case it’s not obvious, I’m not going to be returning the book, I’m going to be foisting it on my writer friends, and seeking out her other work. (Though perhaps from the library, for now.)

Will I get rejected again? Probably. But will I stop writing? Not yet. I’ve written this, and am off to work on something else. For now, I want to keep trying to be a better writer.

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston

April 29th, 2014

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A pick for my book group Gods & Monsters, Zora Neale Hurston’s classic Their Eyes Were Watching God was a re-read for me. I could recall nearly nothing about it other than having the a-ha moment that my difficulty reading the dialect written out was analogous to what my ESL students must experience every time they read.

So with only that in my memory, I dove into it again, delighted to find acres of beautiful prose and a main character who defied expectations, both mine as reader as well as those of the other characters around her.

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseeless sweet that left her limp and languid. (11)

Hurston’s dialect contrasts with the polished prose, but is equally evocative in describing emotional truths:

If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.” (159)

As Janie moves through life, she is not always sympathetic, and her actions don’t always make sense. But she is always fascinating and by the end of her amazing tale, I felt much like her friend Pheoby:

“Lawd!” Pheoby breathed out heavily, “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’.” (192)

This is a beautiful coming-of-age tale, deserving of a place in the Western canon.

To prepare for the discussion, I also read Bloom’s Notes on the book as well as Sorrow’s Kitchen, a chidren’s biography. I have complicated feelings about Harold Bloom. He’s a world-renowned scholar, and a brilliant literary critic. He’s also condescending and dismissive of the work of writers who are women or of color while pretending not to be. He publishes study guides for books he criticizes in his introduction. Thus he’s making money off them, plus they’re titled in such as way as to be easily mistaken for the work itself. In this book, I didn’t find his intro illuminating, only irritating, but did appreciate the literary criticism gathered from other authors.

Sorrow’s Kitchen by Mary E. Lyons is intended for younger readers, but impressed me more than Bloom’s intro did. It is a good, short biography and overview of Zora Neale Hurston’s life and work, full of photos, and even better, many excerpts from Hurston’s own writing. It does a good job showing what a divisive person Hurston could be, and doesn’t condescend by simplifying her complexities.

“David Copperfield” by Dickens

April 29th, 2014

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Thanks to my friend Amy at New Century Reading, I finally read David Copperfield. In a weird bit of serendipity and synchronicity, I was reading David at the same time I was reading Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch, which is an homage, though it took me nigh unto 500 pages into Goldfinch for the penny to drop.

I struggled to get through much of Davy, or Daisy, which one of his frenemies dubs him. Last year’s reading of Bleak House was enjoyable from the start, and my weekly reading of that book was a highlight. Davy, though, was forever reminding me of another, better, coming-of-age novel narrated in first person by an orphan who encountered a panoply of people both good and bad as s/he journeyed through life. Dickens claims not to have read Jane Eyre, but there are numerous echoes, some very specific as when the orphans flee and their luggage is lost. I can’t help but think that this book, one that helped launch the ubiquitous adjective Dickensian, owes much to Charlotte Bronte’s book that preceded it. But perseverance paid off. Around page 485, Davy’s narrative picked up when Aunt Betsy Trotwood, a terrific character, made a surprising announcement. From there till the end I found it fun to read.

It’s faint praise, I know, to say that a book really picks up at page 485. That’s why I’m so glad I read this in a group, which kept me going through the slow parts. One friend dropped out, and I wish she’d stayed on to see the further adventures of Aunt Betsey.

This week I’m taking on another readalong for Moby Dick. Readers can follow on Beth’s weblog, and tweet at #TCMoby. I’m sure at some point I swore off these readlongs up and down, yet they’re an easy and enjoyable way to take little sips of big books and keep chipping away at them till they’re done while also having plenty of time for shorter, funner books.

(On second thought, I think I swore off internet book challenges, which I have in fact done. Not readalongs. Probably.)

Gods & Monsters Book Discussion: “The Children of Men” by P.D. James

April 29th, 2014

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Gods and Monsters is a free book discussion group in the Twin Cities, open to the public. We meet monthly, usually the last Sunday of the month, to discuss books with themes of religion, myth, spirituality, and more.

May’s selection is P.D. James’ Children of Men. From Wikipedia:

a dystopian novel by P. D. James that was published in 1992. Set in England in 2021, it centres on the results of mass infertility. James describes a United Kingdom that is steadily depopulating and focuses on a small group of resisters who do not share the disillusionment of the masses.

The book received very positive reviews from many critics such as Caryn James of The New York Times, who called it “wonderfully rich” and “a trenchant analysis of politics and power that speaks urgently”.

Sunday May 25, 2014, 4 pm to 5:30 pm Central Time.
Granite Studio, Eastside Food Co-op
2551 Central Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418

Food and drink are provided, or bring your own.

The co-op’s parking lot is in high demand on Sundays. Please park on the street or in the lot across the street at Central Avenue Liquors.

Find Gods & Monsters on Facebook.

RSVP or questions to godsandmonstersTC@gmail.com

Our book for June will be Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki

March 22nd, 2014

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Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is another contender in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books. Not sure I would have picked up this one, or picked it up so soon, but I fell for it, hard, as I was reading.

It opens with Buddhist passage, “For the Time Being” then launches into the narrative of Nao, pronounced “NOW”, pun intended:

Hi!

My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French mid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future. And if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me, too.

Within the novel, these are the first pages of a journal that a character named Ruth finds on the beach of an island in British Columbia. The book alternates between Nao and Ruth, and encompasses realities from past and present, Japan and US and BC, Buddhist nun to middle-school bullies, and more. My fascination with Nao and desire to know what happens mirrors Ruth’s as their stories unfold and overlap. It was an enjoyable read, but also one that left me thinking on such heady topics as Time and Being. This book was a delight for me to read on both the macro and micro levels.