August 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Today’s good words come from the acknowledgements for Leif Enger’s novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome. Even thanking someone else, his words strike home:
Sometimes heroism is nothing more than patience, curiosity, and a refusal to panic.
Reflect, dear readers.
June 25, 2012 § 7 Comments
Most of my weekend was spent reading on my back porch, enjoying the green around me. Many times I stumbled across a line so good I had to jump up to write it down in my folder of “little darlings” or add it to the collection on my bathroom mirror – where all the good lines go down. Here are a few:
From Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, who’s novel in verse chronicles a young Vietnamese girl’s immigrant experience.
She strokes my back.
Chant, my daughter;
your whispers will bloom
and shelter you
you need not hear.
From Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel The Shadow of the Wind:
A book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.
And from “Where Wings Could Be” by Susanna Childress:
What I need
from life: a few loves brilliant with return.
A nod to these writers.
June 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
With the passing of Ray Bradbury, his words that he wanted to “live forever” through his writing have been echoing in my head. I’m not sure there is any other author whose writing has left such indelible scenes on my mind.
Sure, there were characters who I imagined to be my best friends and characters I imagined my self to be. I’ve marveled at the craft of storytelling shown by Daniel Handler and Jonathan Safran Foer and the beautiful words of Kate DiCamillo and Louise Erdrich. The God of Small Things and The Book Thief took my breath away at each paragraph and Connie Willis and Diana Wynne Jones always make laugh. I remember characters and lines and how I feel while reading a story.
But with Bradbury’s work, I remember scenes. And they thrill and delight.
Scenes like the people coming alive as the illustrated man flexed and rippled his skin, or the first sight the boys in Something Wicked This Way Comes have of that time-warping spinning carousel, the children in the African-themed nursery waiting for their parents with a carnivorous appetite, the astronaut alone and forever floating away from his exploded rocket, an entire office of coworkers dreaming the same dream – the ending of the world like a quiet closing of a book.
Years have not dimmed these images. They are made more potent in that each of his stories include some awful horror - something unnamed and animal within us, desires for youth or control gone toward unnatural ends – or some surprising piece of goodness: the safety of a library, the collective calm of preparing for the end.
I love that his stories have spun off of “what-if” questions. The situations in his sci-fi and speculative fiction will never happen. But they somehow reveal what humanity is like anyway – the good and bad – in our present reality. And I am both repulsed and drawn towards the discovery.
Bradbury writes in his introduction to The Illustrated Man that he refused to die, so “I write, I write, at noon or 3am. So as not to be dead.” I think we read, we read. So as to know who we are.
And we know a little more, thanks to him. A nod to a very gifted writer.
May 29, 2012 § 2 Comments
That’s something my piano professor, Dr. Namji Kim, used to tell me. She was right.
This May I finally listened to the recording of my senior piano recital, which I performed in 2009. I didn’t have the courage to listen to it before now. The first piece, Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb Major, came on through my headphones. There were tears. It’s been a long time. What I felt in that performance derived from my experiences up to that moment. What I feel listening to it 2.5 years later is compounded by my experiences since then.
In February I came across Sophie Blackall’s book, Missed Connections, a compilation of her wonderful illustrations of the most hilarious and moving posts she has found on Missed Connections in New York. (You can check out a preview of her book here.) This is one of my favorite stories:
The Whale at Coney Island
- M4M – 69
A young friend of mine recently acquainted me with the intricacies of Missed Connections, and I have decided to try to find you one final time.
Many years ago, we were friends and teachers together in New York City. Perhaps we could have been lovers too, but we were not. We used to take trips to Coney Island, especially during the spring, when we would stroll hand in hand, until our palms got too sweaty, along the boardwalk, and take refuge in the cool darkness of the aquarium. We liked to visit the whale best. One spring, it arrived from its winter home (in Florida? I can’t remember) pregnant. Everyone at the aquarium was very excited – a baby beluga whale was going to be born in New York City! You insisted that we not miss the birth, so every day after class, and on both Saturday and Sunday, we would takethe D train all the way from Harlem to Coney Island.
We got there one Saturday as the aquarium opened and there was a sign posted to the glass tank. The baby beluga had been born dead. The mother, the sign read, was recovering but would be fine. We read the sign in shock and watched the single beluga whale in her tank. She was circling slowly. Neither of us could speak. Suddenly, without warning, the beluga started to throw herself against the wall of the tank. Trainers came and ushered us out. We sat on a bench outside, and suddenly I felt tears running down my face. You saw, turned my face towards yours, and kissed me. We had never kissed before, and I let my lips linger on yours for a second before I stood up and walked towards the ocean.
It was too much – the whale, the death, the kiss – and I wasn’t ready.
Forgive me — I don’t think I ever understood what an emptiness you would create when you left and I realized that that kiss on Coney Island was the first and the last.
Are you out there, dear friend?
If so, please respond. I think of you, and have thought of you often, all of these years.
Sophie writes in her introduction,
In an effort to understand the Missed Connections better, I found myself sorting them into categories. There is the standard formula, which states the location, the time, a brief description of the person sighted, and a regret at not making contact.
There are the ones written to a known person, which deviate from the formula, but this person is usually inaccessible…
“I am trying to track down a long lost love of a dear friend. My friend was in a very bad car accident in his 20’s that made him unable to use one hand. He had a son with this ‘drop dead gorgeous’ jewish woman in NY about 40 years ago. They lived together before it was status quo. They loved each other, but he says they were destructive, so he left. But he never forgot her, or his son. I promised I would try to find the woman or her son. He knows neither one may want to see him. This man is the closest thing I have to a father. I am proud to be his friend, and I think he is worth knowing, even now.”
I think what makes Sophie’s illustrations of chance meetings and stolen moments on the subway so charming is that people are forced to include the little details we don’t often get to hear, the details that can identify one person out of the millions. Details about how they were drawn to someone because of their scrabble tattoo, the way they knitted so nimbly, that they were wearing a shirt with horses on it and that a man with admirably scruffy hair twirled her into a waltz in the middle of a NYC street. Even so, I am most drawn to the searchers who are looking for someone they have known well in the past. The long-lost dear friend or former partner holds more weight in my memory. There is more at stake. The Whale at Coney Island has stuck with me since I read it months ago. It’s a beautiful story and plea. I am also moved by the appeal of the friend in the second one, that “This man is the closest thing I have to a father… he is worth knowing, even now.”
And yet, they are bittersweet, not only because we are not sure if they’ll be answered, but also because I wonder if things will work out even if they are answered. These people have had years to idealize. What are either of them expecting from their search? That the other will accept them back, that they can pick up where they left off? That the other person hasn’t replaced them and begun to live content in their present reality? And if they have, shouldn’t we wish that for them?
I wonder how we can expect that we know what we want, now, when we’re removed from the other and influenced by loneliness. As though now suddenly if we could only see that person we’d be happy. That we’d be content and the old patterns would evaporate into something perfectly good. What is this in us that can’t let go? Why the persistent curiosity about what things might have been like, what kind of tea that person drinks these days, what they do when it’s rainy out, and whether they’ve dismissed us. Haven’t we proven we’re not trustworthy? Are we “worth knowing, even now”?
I recently read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Most of the main characters struggle with regret and letting go:
It’s the tragedy of loving. You can’t love anything more than something you miss.
I regret that it takes a life to learn how to live, Oskar. Because if I were able to live again, I would do things differently.
I would change my life.
I would kiss my piano teacher, even if he laughed at me.
I would jump with Mary on the bed, even if I made a fool of myself.
I would send out ugly photographs, thousands of them.
Again in Incredibly Loud, the main character speaks with a man who was never on good terms with his father. When his father realized he was dying, he began to write letters to nearly everyone he had known. Many were very moving and vulnerable. However, to his son’s surprise, the letter he received did not attempt to make any reconciliation or show any emotion. It was a logistical letter, to get affairs in order:
“You were disappointed?” “I was angry” “I’m sorry” “No, there’s nothing to be sorry for. I thought about it. I thought about it all the time. My father told me where he’d left things, and what he wanted taken care of. He was responsible. He was good. It’s easy to be emotional. You can always make a scene. Remember me eight months ago? That was
He was responsible. He was good. It’s easy to be emotional. You can always make a scene.
Maybe the missed connections searchers are brave. Or, maybe loving something you miss is the illusion. Maybe those who have a shred of true care left for the other’s well-being are the ones with the courage to leave that person alone, to resist the urge to make pretty speeches and let them move on in peace. Maybe that is the good and true thing to do. As Greg Watson says in his poem “Now,” to have, from a distance, a certain contentment, to be…
…happy, to have kissed
your mouth with the force of language,
to have spoken your name at all.
Whatever the answer is, whatever we feel after the fact, we have all made choices that brought us to where we are. It’s difficult to remember why, but I think the truth is, we chose.
Guest post by Anna Marie.
April 23, 2012 § 6 Comments
When someone asked me recently what I’d been reading, I realized the last four books included nonfiction, a volume of poetry, a fantasy epic, and some “high-falutin award-winning” literary type of literature. I felt so unusually well-rounded in my reading habits, I had to share with you, readers. Do take me down a peg and tell me what I’m missing.
1. Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? (and other concerns) by Mindy Kaling. Occasionally I suffer myself to read nonfiction, books like Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Lies My Teacher Told Me, or anything by Malcolm Gladwell. These books make me feel smart and snooty.
But they take me months to get through, and that’s with lots of skimming. Not so with Mindy Kaling, whose memoir is only slightly less funnier than Tina Fey’s Bossypants but includes far more references to BFFs and irrational bawling.
Read an excerpt of “Best Friend’s Rights and Responsibilities.”
2. Jagged with Love by Susanna Childress. I fell in love with Susanna’s word-smithing in the first three pages. Her poems are breathtaking, tightly-crafted pieces. I got to meet Susanna this weekend, and her reading of poetry kept captive a roomful of listeners until she ended, when they scurried away to buy her latest book.
Listen to her read “This Day is in Love with Me.“
3. This was the second time I read the light-hearted and comic fantasy Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. In this book, there’s a young girl who imagines herself an old woman, a magician who gets into foul tempers due to his vanity, and a lot of heart, as the reader discovers.
4. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is a beautifully told story of an elderly man and a teenage, list-making girl who spend the whole novel trying to discover the other. When they finally do meet, they are not what the other thought. The meeting is a sad letting go of expectations and a sweet sense of arriving.
What other genre would round out this book list? What are you reading this month?
March 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Today, based on past purchases, Amazon saw fit to tell me that Mo Willems was coming out with a new book, The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?
The outrage and jealousy of Mo’s iconic pigeon protagonist is palpable. Over the course of the day, I coincidentally received several other news on children’s books and illustrations. And because the sun, skirts, and popsicles are making their way out of a long wintry hibernation, it feels right to sit cross-legged on the floor and open up some larger-than-average book with bright colors and plenty of space for imagining. Here are a few:
Author David McKee gives his best tips for how to draw an elephant. (Read the whole story here):
And Sam Bradley with the Picture Book Report project (a group of 15 artists who illustrate the books they’re reading) chooses a scene from Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book where NoBody Owens meets a friend.
A nod to childhood.
February 29, 2012 § 3 Comments
Guest post by Anna Marie.
It rained all day Thursday in Chicago. The best days to be outside here are when weather is happening; it’s a reminder that nature still exists, the city can’t escape it. I went for a bike ride. I got distracted by the way street-light travels through puddles. I stood on the sidewalk, and the sound world soaked in.
When I’m feeling a bit stale, lost, or overwhelmed by Chicago’s grid system, somehow weather finds its way to me, as do the books of Keri Smith. They meet me along the wandered paths of museum gift shops and little bookstores. Her books poke me in the sides and ignite flames in my ears. They make me want the freedom to live out the oddities of existence and to be ravenously curious about everything. They give me permission to step outside of expected behavior.
Here are three of her books I recommend; they will challenge you and make you smile. They each have their own focus on how to shake out of normal routine, to get us to imagine.
Challenge #1: Deconstruct familiarity
How To Be an Explorer of the World is filled with guidance and quotes that encourage us to stop taking things for granted, start seeing them as though we’ve never seen them before, fight assumptions, and begin to love ordinary things for their possibilities.
The book takes us through a series of explorations to help those of us who don’t know where to start. Here are some of my favorites:
Document any naturally occurring faces you find on your travels. Look for them in plumbing parts, fixtures (door hooks), in nature (trees), in human-made objects, in the clouds, etc.
THE LANGUAGE OF TREES
…Document an overheard conversation.
Alternate: collect words you find interesting.
Einstein used “thought experiments” (questions that can only be solved using the imaginzation), on a regular basis. He actually formulated the special theory of relativity by asking the question, “What would it be like to travel on a beam of light?” It is interesting to conduct these thought experiments in the midst of everyday life.
Anna’s Thought Experiment: What if I could dive into a puddle and arrive in that reflected world? There were puddles for two days from the Thursday rain. I kept walking around and staring in them, taken by their pond-like ability to inspire rest, despite their size and shores of pavement.
In a puddle I can see the reflection of branches from a city tree. If I could dive in and appear in those branches, then puddles would be physical portals into dreams. Of course. I see city branches, but when my mind dives through, I arrive in a forest, with a vast sky and landscape of stillness, solitude. No social norms or career conveyor belts, only the old stories of the trees, a place where my heart can listen and expand beyond the grid.
Challenge #2: Let go of perfection, assumptions of what success is.
In Wreck This Journal, each page is a simple instruction on how to wreck the journal (the person who took a picture of theirs has done a delightfully thorough job of the wrecking). It tells you to do things with it that make you uncomfortable, like:
Break the spine right away,
Scribble on it everywhere,
Not to follow her instructions,
Leave it somewhere outside overnight.
There is also a page dedicated to negative thoughts (“What is your inner critic saying?”). I had to stop and journal when I read that, because my inner critic was saying a lot: “This is dumb. This is not even helping me. Why would we learn to be so orderly as adults if it were only hurting us and we just had to unlearn it? What if nothing interesting happened when I left it outside? That would be really disappointing and I’d feel dumb.”
At the beginning of the book she warns that in order to create, you have to destroy, and that by going through the book, you may begin to partake:
“You may begin to see creative destruction everywhere. You may begin to live more recklessly.”
Challenge #3: Co-create. We change human history, we change the nature of things.
This Is Not a Book takes us through a piece of work that is anything but a book. Every single page starts with “This is…” followed by a word, description, and/or set of instructions revealing what that page is besides a book. Every page requires interaction to make it something other than a book.
Some of my other favorite pages were:
this is a PUBLIC SPACE
invite people to add something to this page
this is a PERFORMANCE
select a piece of writing you really like. Read it out loud, where others can hear you.
this is a VIRTUAL REALITY
1. Make a list of your personality traits
2.Take those traits and exaggerate or embellish them. Create a character (or Avatar) with these traits as superpowers.
3. Create several superhero accessories.
I know that I am not alone. Many people I have talked with feel lost, wondering if we can find a meaningful place for our talents and passions, trying to reconcile what we’ve learned and are encountering about what’s true, about the nature of reality. I have nothing figured out. I leave you this last thought from How To Be an Explorer…
February 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
The most interesting insight I’ve heard in the e-reader vs. traditional book debate is that as the traditional book grows in rarity, the production and making of these paper bound books will become more and more an art form. The book itself – much like illuminated manuscripts hundreds of years ago – will become a piece of art.
Former Soft Skull editor Richard Nash spoke with the Boston Review about the current state of publishing. “What we have witnessed over the last fifty years is the progressive shittification of the book as an object,” he says. Because it’s been about mass producing books and making profit, we’ve lost some things about books that make them beautiful to display as well as read, that give them the quality of something we’d want to keep.
There are many authors and artists exploring this idea already. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, published a book last fall, Tree of Codes, mixing the art of die-cutting with story-telling for an interesting novel and an intriguing piece of visual art.
Julie Chen defines herself as a book artist. She says:
For me, the physical manifestation of the book is often of equal importance to the visual and textual ideas expressed within the pages in conveying meaning and in affecting the experience of the reader/viewer. My personal definition of the book is quite broad, with boundaries that are in constant flux. At the core of my interpretation is the act of reading, and the element of time that is essential to this act.
Maryline Poole Adams in Berkeley, California, prints and publishes miniature books like the ones below.
Makoto Fujimura, a contemporary painter in New York, harkens back to the days of illuminated biblical manuscripts through his collaboration with Crossway Books on a new edition of the four gospels.
Designer Cardon Webb redesigned the covers of six books on neurology by Oliver Sacks, so that each cover could stand alone or go together in a collection.
I’m interested to see how this art form will grow. And I rather like the question of physical bookish materials below, posed by poet Elaine Equi.
“The Libraries Didn’t Burn”
despite books kindled in electronic flames.
The locket of bookish love
still opens and shuts.
But its words have migrated
to a luminous elsewhere.
Neither completely oral nor written —
a somewhere in between.
Then will oak, willow,
birch, and olive poets return
to their digital tribes —
trees wander back to the forest?
January 23, 2012 § 5 Comments
With January almost over, am I too late to tell you my favorite books read during 2011? I do like list-making and the different ways you can measure the passing of a year. So I took a look back and picked ten books whose writing or characters continue to stay with me.
1. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. I’d never read this classic before and thought it would be some slow-paced social comedy of the Jane Austen type (which I do enjoy), but this novel zips along like a contemporary adventure movie with all the necessary cliffhangers, twists and turns, and political intrigue of a modern thriller. It was an unexpected delight and I was hooked.
2. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccomatios by Yann Martel. In this collection of short stories, the story titled “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton” (I’m a sucker for lengthy, involved titles) kept this book on the list. When I finished it, I remember abruptly sitting up, emitting an audible gasp. It’s not that this story is the next 21st century classic, but the masterful way in which Martel wraps up all the story’s themes made me admire and envy his extraordinary talent for storytelling.
3., 4., and 5. This year three books of poetry made it to my list. The volumes of Lucifer at the Starlite by Kim Addonizio and The Need to Hold Still by Lisel Mueller quickly made these women some of my favorite poets. (I posted two of their poems here.) The volume Here, Bullet by Brian Turner deals with his time as a solider in Iraq. War seems such an unpoetic topic, yet Brian Turner paints vivid pictures of soldiers and civilians, culture and history, the brutality of war and the beauty of life.
“This is a language made of blood.
It is made of sand, and time.
To be spoken, it must be earned.”
(from “A Soldier’s Arabic”)
6. Blankets by Craig Thompson. I’m not an avid reader of graphic novels, but I really enjoyed this quiet story of a Midwest teenager growing up in a small conservative town and wrestling with ideas of religion, love, and family. It’s honest, sometimes hard to read, and beautifully drawn. Also worth checking out is Thompson’s recent Habibi, which also deals with hard issues, love and religion in the Middle East.
7. Zeroville by Steve Erickson. With a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift on his head, the the main character shows up in Hollywood in 1969, knowing nothing else of life but movies. It’s a quirky book with a muddled plot, but through it Erickson explores the history of movies: of acting and editing, of trends and innovation. It’s a story told via the written word that captures well the magic of movies.
8. Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson. Of all the WWII stories of hiding and escape that I’ve read over the years, this novella is unique in that the Jewish man who is hidden by a Dutch couple grows sick and doesn’t survive. The story deals with the aftermath and the guilt of a couple who have tried to help out their neighbor and must go into hiding themselves. It’s an interesting point of view by a German Jew who survived by hiding with strangers in Holland.
9. Bossypants by Tina Fey. It’s just so funny! Pakou introduced it to me first when she excerpted it here. With several of my friends taking interest in improv, I enjoyed learning more about the craft and the way an improv mentality can influence the way you live. Like always responding with a “yes, and…” so that you always contribute something to the scene, so that the scene can always move forward. And did I mention? She’s so funny! “I am a big believer in Intelligent Design,” she writes. “And by that I mean I love IKEA!”
10. How to Keep Your Volkswagon Alive by Christopher Boucher. This is a quirky novel that is partly about maintenance (the Volkswagon runs on stories), partly about parenting (the 1971 Volkswagon Beatle is actually the protagonist’s son), and partly about a journey (as the protagonist deals with his father being carried away by a Heart Attack Tree). It takes awhile to get into the surreal rhythm of the story since Boucher makes up some words and redefines others, but it’s worth it when you stumble across so many beautiful passages like this one:
Once I was on my way towards Route 116 in Amherst when, in the middle of those cranberry turns, I looked over and found my passenger to be an old, creaky mechanical bull. This bull rode with a bottle of wine between his legs, and he wore a wide-collared shirt, and his face told me that he’d been forced over the course of his trip to say goodbye to people that he loved. He was holding in that love. It burned inside him like a soldier.
What were your favorites of the year?
December 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
Guest post by Andrea Westaby.
Recently a friend and I were discussing our childhoods and some of the things we missed about them. The conversation prompted me not only to reminisce about the things that I had or experienced, but also to ponder some of the childhood joys that I wish I could still indulge in. I’m sure everyone has a few. Here are some of mine:
Book-It. In case you don’t know what Book-It is, let me enlighten you. Pizza Hut has a reading program for kids where they set reading goals, and when those goals are met each month, the happy student gets a free one-topping personal pan pizza. For me, who was already being called a “bookworm” by third grade or so, reading came easily – almost as easily as eating free pizza which I did not have to share with my brothers or sister. I only wish they had Book-It for adults.
The Root Beer Stand. I’m sure many of you have some childhood haunt, some “place” that you loved, and has become only a memory. One such place was the Root Beer Stand in my hometown. It had root beer floats, of course, and cheese curds, and fudge-dipped ice cream cones. It was a real, old-fashioned stand, where you had to order from – and eat – outside. There were no comfy booths, just a few rickety picnic tables, if that. At least that’s how I remember it. Unfortunately, the place was torn down to make room for – you guessed it – a parking lot.
Books with art. I can’t help but wish publishers and authors included illustrations in more books than they do. Unfortunately, book illustrations geared toward anyone over the age of 7 are usually met with a sneer, as if liking pictures in your books means that you can’t read properly. I couldn’t disagree more. I always loved to read, and I always liked the pictures. I would love to see more books – modern and classic – with accompanying art on some page other than the cover.
I’m sure I could go on for hours, just reminiscing. I’m equally sure that all who read this have some fond memories to indulge in as well. Some of my memories are more personal than root beer and free pizza, and that makes them all the more dear. Memories of familial closeness and good times with friends. Memories like my dad singing old country-western or folk songs to me or my brothers. Favorites were “The Green, Green Grass of Home” and “my” song, “Just Walk Away, Renee.”
But, come to think of it, I’m not sure that I want any of those things back. I don’t think a 6-inch pizza would be as filling to me now as it was when I was eight. A rickety root beer stand might not be as magical anymore. I would hate to have my memories spoiled by realizing that the cheese curds I thought were the best in the world were really actually just plain old cheese curds all along. With the possible exceptions of illustrations in books and hearing my dad sing, I think I can be content to leave the past where it is – in a beautifully-wrapped, somewhat mysterious cloud of memories and dreams that comfort and assure me in the quiet moments of life.