January always gets me thinking about new beginnings. This year is even more conducive to forward thinking: as Will I Am sings far more eloquently than I can say, “It’s a New Day,” and President Obama reminded American in his inaugural address that in hard times, we can “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again . . . .” Inspiring stuff, on the heels of a National Day of Service on MLK Day. What a beginning!
The bookconscious household has long been interested in serving our community, both local and global, and this week we renewed our commitment to doing our part, looking for a place to volunteer together in the New Year, and in my case, ordering the Mothers Acting Up calendar. But a conversation with a friend and fellow writer before the holidays, and her unexpected gift, gave me inspiration of a more personal sort, and reading material to help me dust off my writing synapses.
Some bookconscious fans know I am a poet. I went through a dry spell last fall, as well as a spate of rejection letters and a rebellion against using my already limited time seeking new markets that will mostly reject my work. This perfect storm of limiting factors forced me to rehash the existential argument with myself most writers have from time to time: why am I doing this? Am I writing to write or to publish? I came to the conclusion after a few months of feeling miserable (and quite possibly making those dearest to me miserable as well) that the answer, for me, is a version of the former — thank heavens, because if it were the latter, I may have quit for good!
I write to be me, to work out what I see in the world. Like many who feel this compulsion, I don’t know of a time when I didn’t do this; even as a little girl, I wrote and I had imaginary internal dialogues when I couldn’t write. One of my oldest and dearest friends, a fellow writer I’ll call Khrushchev (even though I adore her) sent me The Vein of Gold, by Julia Cameron, which has prompted me to remember writing’s place in my life.
Due to an amazon.com shipping mishap, I got this book without it’s predecessor, The Artist’s Way, on the second to last day of 2008, not long after I spoke to Chev about my poetry blues. The Artist’s Way arrived this week, and since Cameron refers frequently to The Artist’s Way in Vein of Gold, I’m now a bit confused as to which would be the more helpful to read first. Either way, Khrushchev’s thoughtful gift has helped me commit myself to a creative reboot.
Both books are intended to help artists reconnect with their core creativity. They are books to read slowly and to interact with. So far, I’ve incorporated Cameron’s idea of “morning pages” into my routine. I’ve tried to take walks, which she also recommends, but it was -20 something one morning last week, so I’ve sometimes substituted snow shoveling or walking indoors in a gym with a lovely view of some woods for the real deal. I’m having trouble taking a weekly “artist’s date” exactly as Cameron recommends; I intend to keep trying.
But I am muscling my way through a narrative time line, which Cameron recommends early in Vein of Gold, and that got me thinking about why I write and how I’ve always felt a need to. So thanks, Chev. I’ll keep reading and working, and I’ll remember to give myself permission to adjust Cameron’s program to my life when necessary.
Early January also brought the first Gibson’s book club meeting of 2009. We talked about Bleak House, which we’d given ourselves two months to read instead of the usual one. I’ve read Hard Times and Great Expectations, but Bleak House was new to me. If you’ve never read Dickens, I highly recommend it. It was the most enjoyable classic I’ve read in a long time. All of us at the meeting loved it, and it inspired some discussion of what makes a book “great.”
Endurance was one characteristic we came up with, but why does a work endure? Of course we didn’t come to any grand far reaching conclusions, but for Bleak House, the things we kept returning to were it’s masterful plot and fascinating characters. It’s simply brilliant, but even better, it’s fun — entertaining and humorous and full of small delights.
It’s a massive, complicated book, but it never plods, never bores, and despite its length, also never loses or confuses the reader. I’ve heard people complain that Dickens is too wordy, but once you get into the book, the style blends with the story. Bleak House is part social satire, part mystery, part love story, part parable — but you won’t feel preached to, and the connections between the characters are never forced, the outcome of the various twists and mysteries are neither overly foreshadowed nor too sudden or pat.
I couldn’t get over how familiar the people in Bleak House are — you’ll think of modern characters or real people who seem much like Lady Dedlock (Dickens would have had fun with Lady Diana), Skimpole (unfortunately, Bernard Madoff comes to mind), Richard (the 30 something who just won’t grow up), Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle (today they’d forward campaigns to join and petitions to sign online).
I could go on, but there are so many characters, I won’t. Besides, half the fun is making your own connections. Treat yourself to Bleak House — you’ll feel proud of yourself for reading such a brick of a book (930 pages in paperback), and if it’s below zero, pouring, or snowing where you are, you won’t have to go out again anytime soon for something else to read.
In an effort to intrigue the teenager and his younger sister, I brought up the idea of defining “great” literature or any other art at the dinner table a couple of weeks ago. A friend suggested that what’s “great” is what you love; my 11 year old immediately said she disagreed with this, citing her love of The Secrets of Droon, a paperback series that she doesn’t think kids will read in a hundred years (we’d already discussed great books’ long lives), but she enjoys enough to ask me to buy each new volume, and even to re-read.
Both kids felt that a great book should appeal to people of many ages and cultures, even if it’s rooted in particulars. For me, a great book is also a “total package” — beautifully written, with excellent story telling, finely drawn characters and images that bring the whole thing to life. We didn’t solve the problem around our dinner table, but agreed that the concept of “great” art is probably a blend of the esoteric (think Harold Bloom and college lit crit classes) and the earthy (love = classic).
Bookconscious is a blog about what we’re reading and how our reading resonated with us (or didn’t), rather than a place for literary criticism. But we did decide to try our own version of a lit crit circle at the bookconscious house. The Computer Scientist suggested that we read “classics” that often turn up on reading lists for the college bound, and discuss them as if we are a literature seminar class. The teenager actually agreed to this, and we’ve started The Old Man and the Sea.
The idea is to introduce him to talking about books the way college classes do — taking a book apart and examining its parts, then commenting on their colors and textures, where and how they were created, and the way they work together, and hopefully remembering how to put everything back where it was without wrecking the whole thing. Not long after he read the first part we planned to discuss, the teenager asked, in true New England style, “Why are we reading a book that compliments the damn Yankees? You didn’t tell me Hemingway was a Yankees fan!”
We had our first discussion about the beginning of the novella, up to: “But today is eighty-five days, and I should fish the day well.” My contribution was some feminist analysis of Hemingway’s analogy that the sea, when it acts up, is like a woman affected by the moon. We’re planning to discuss the author, his views (even the cranky ones), inspirations and influences, when we get to the end and don’t risk reading a spoiler. Discussing women and cycles of the moon did seem to make the Computer Scientist slightly cranky, in a playful kind of way.
Is there anything that makes a reader crankier than anticipating a book by a favorite author only to dislike the new offering? I didn’t even finish Unaccustomed Earth, even though I really liked Jhumpa Lahiri’s earlier books. All the characters in the stories I made it through are struggling with pain, addiction, dysfunction, or some other crisis, and I just found it too much of a downer right now.
In fairness, the quality of the writing didn’t disappoint me, it was the content I couldn’t get into. And actually in the first few stories, the theme was the same — Bengali immigrant has generation gap with older immigrant parents and also doesn’t’ fully fit into mainstream American or British culture either, and therefore suffers emotional pain. I like a little more variety, even allowing for the fact that most authors have favorite themes.
I’m still interested in essays and memoir, even though I also enjoy reading fiction and my writing goal these days is to get my poetry mojo back. So I read a memoir I’ve been thinking of picking up for awhile, David M. Carroll’s Self-Portrait With Turtles. Carroll lives in nearby Warner, and has been on my radar since reading about him in the local paper.
Reading this book, in which Carroll traces his lifelong passions for turtles and art and how he made them his life’s work, was particularly interesting as I write about my childhood for the narrative time line exercise in Vein of Gold. Self-Portrait With Turtles also confirmed my belief that in an ideal world, kids would be free to learn as they explore their interests, rather than in classrooms where they must set aside their interests in order to prepare to take a standardized test or regurgitate facts.
In keeping with following my own interests, I read three books of poetry recently: Elephant Rocks, by U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan; Last Island, by former Portsmouth poet laureate Mimi White; and Season We Can’t Resist, by NH poet Martha Carlson-Bradley. I’d seen reviews of the first two books when I was working at St. Paul’s School as the interim reference librarian last fall. I found the third book on my local public library’s new books shelf. I enjoyed all three.
Ryan’s poems are like those little wooden puzzles you can play with but never manage to get back together — I prefer to enjoy them whole, acknowledging I may never really figure out what makes her words fit in such a curious and complicated way, or how they start out as ordinary words and become beautiful, mind bending poems. White, whose poetic perseverance is inspiring and uplifting for someone struggling with publishing, writes with broad metaphoric brushstrokes. Carlson-Bradley impressed me with her eye for the finest detail.
None of these women writes poems that are merely lovely or masterful; each uses language and craft to wend her way through truth as well as beauty. Poems often tell a reader something about herself once she’s gotten know them better, and good poems make the reader want to take the time to go beyond a handshake and really get acquainted. I felt that way in the company of several selections from all of these books.
And I felt that way upon hearing Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” I was pleased to read it here — poetry is a visual as well as an oral art form, so I was happy to find the poem in the form Alexander wrote it, rather than just as a transcript on a news site.
Besides poems and the Julia Cameron texts on creativity, I have several other books in progress on my reading pile. The kids and I are all enjoying Philip Reeve’s latest Larklight book, Mothstorm. What a clever, imaginative, thoroughly delightful yarn Reeve spins! Fun for all of us, including the teenager. If you’ve missed reading aloud but your kids think they’re too old for it, crack open one of these books and see if they don’t come lounge in a nearby chair and listen (even if they may pretend all the while to be studiously ignoring you). You’ll feel the way you did when, as a child, you lost yourself in a fantastic book, flopped on your belly in the grass or on your bed on a rainy day, and you won’t want to stop reading.
I do *need* to catch up on Old Man and the Sea so I’ll be ready for this weekend’s chat — we’re reading up to the midst of the old man’s struggle with the big fish. And I picked up a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories, edited and with commentary by his biographer, Matthew Bruccoli. I was curious to read the original The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I haven’t read it yet, or seen the film, but I am really enjoying Fitzgerald’s other stories, and Brucolli provides a brief introduction to each piece, which are interesting. I’m thinking of continuing to read short fiction, since I tend to have a few books going at once, on the theory that it’s easier to finish one story and set the book aside than it is to re-enter a novel.
A work of fiction I’m enjoying while I read but am having trouble re-entering is The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower, on loan from my father-in-law. We’re both fans of C.S. Forrester’s Hornblower books, but either because it’s been awhile since I read the series or because it’s somewhat confusing to read a fictional character’s biography, I keep feeling lost. I probably ought to sit down and read it through.
If you like the satisfaction of finishing a book., two books I found at Ohrstrom library’s graphic novel display recently are easy to finish in a sitting: Robot Dreams by Sara Varon, which is a wordless book about a friendship between a dog and a robot; and Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino. Porcellino’s book is actually a graphic biography. Both are excellent. If you’ve tried Bleak House or read a lot of poems and your head feels full, either of these books will sweep you clean, refresh your reading spirit, and make you eager for more books.
Until next month, all good reading to you!