Posts Tagged ‘Maira Kalman’

Ok, so it didn’t snow today, or last Friday, but it snowed Saturday-Monday and I read three more books.

One book bingo square I filled is “A book from one of the library’s new shelves.” I chose Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. It’s as much the story of his remarkable mother as it is his story. Noah explains apartheid and the post-apartheid years in Johannesburg and describes his childhood and adolescence, as well as his family history. As the child of his unconventional mother and father — a black Xhosa woman and a white Swiss man, Noah is considered colored, or mixed race, in South Africa, and his very existence was illegal. Growing up his black relatives and their neighbors considered him white; he thought of himself as black.

Noah has a conversational style and as you might expect, a gift for finding humor even in extreme hardship. And it’s clear that despite repeatedly describing beatings he received from her, Noah’s mother is the reason he survived his childhood. In one story he explains that she frequently told him things a child perhaps should not hear, but she had her reasons: “My mom told me these things so I would never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. ‘Learn from your past and be better because of your past,’ she would say, ‘but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold onto it. Don’t be bitter.’ And she never was.”

For my “book whose title that begins with W,” my second born suggested Why We Broke Up. I got it at the library book sale at one point, because we both love Maira Kalman and they loved Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket — A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of the first series they read without me reading it aloud. Why We Broke Up is is the story of Min, a teenager who is writing to her two-timing jock ex-boyfriend, Ed. She’s explaining what’s in a box of stuff she’s going to leave on his porch as soon as she’s done writing the letter. Her best friend, Al, is driving her to take the box of stuff back. I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure the second born would — they’d probably want to know what in the hell Min saw in Ed (ok, lust, popularity). I couldn’t decide if Ed is a serial shit, a victim of his own popularity and co-captain privilege, a product of the patriarchy, or unreliable because of his own troubled childhood. Min is awesome, except that she’s dim about Al, who is superior to Ed in every way. Al is awesome, and at first I thought kind of unbelievable but then I realized no, there are kids who are kind of mature beyond their years. A little painful to read for someone who made her share of dumb decisions about which boys to spend time in high school, but I like the way it’s told, and I LOVE the illustrations.

Finally I read “A book with a red cover,” one that I’ve owned for years but had only flipped through: A Journey Into the Transcendentalists’ New England by R. Todd Felton. I bought this in Concord, MA, when we went on a family day trip after reading about — and some works by some of Concord’s famous residents, particularly Thoreau. I’ve been reading and thinking a good bit about 19th century Boston, especially because the Computer Scientist and I have spent more time there this year. This book is an introductory guide to the places and people who were important to the Transcendentalist movement. It’s full of photos and maps, but no visitor information, so it’s more a guide in the sense of giving an overview than a tourist guide. It made me curious about The Boston Atheneum – a private library, still in existence today. And it made me aware of some of the history of places I’ve already been — I didn’t know The Atlantic Monthly was founded by a group called the Saturday Club, which met at The Omni Parker House.  Nor did I know that the building attached to the Brattle Book Shop on West Street, now occupied by a restaurant called Papagayo, was once Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore, where Margaret Fuller and Peabody held “conversations” for thinking women and so many of the great writers and thinkers of the day came to talk and buy books.

I love history and reading this, as well as a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner that I’m about halfway through, makes me want to go through my shelves for more Boston history. I could read something in that vein for the “A biography or memoir” square, since the Gardner book would fit the “book about art or artists” square (she collected art, befriended artists, and founded the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this evening, I’m after “A book with a number in the title.”

And, there is snow in the forecast.

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My column ran in today’s Concord Monitor. If you have trouble with the link, here it is:

The Mindful Reader: A sensible approach to mental strength

My son saw my review copy of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by Amy Morin and said it’s all over social media, even though it’s not officially out until Jan. 1. Which is fitting, because the book grew out of a blog post that went viral. By the time she was 26, Morin had experienced the unexpected deaths of her mother and husband. When she was 31, her new father-in-law died of cancer. A psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in Maine, Morin wrote her post about mental strength. It had 10 million views in a few weeks.

Morin’s advice isn’t necessarily new – don’t feel sorry for yourself, don’t waste energy on what you can’t control and don’t dwell on the past, for example – but her story is compelling. A conversational style makes the book easy to read. She includes diagnostic checklists (I uneasily identified myself as a people pleaser), and offers dos and don’ts at the end of each chapter to help readers coach themselves into better habits. She cautions those seeking a quick fix, “Increasing your mental strength isn’t about simply reading this book or declaring that you’re tough. Instead it’s about incorporating strategies into your life that will help you reach your full potential.”

And that’s what kept me reading. I’m fairly skeptical of positive psychology, but Morin is clear that her book isn’t about thinking good thoughts, but unthinking bad ones and working on healthier replacements for mental bad habits. It’s a sensible approach, prescribed in realistic, achievable actions. She also notes “training your brain” is no easier than training your body and requires discipline and hard work. Which seems like a message worthy of going viral.

Old age unvarnished

Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty is mainly about old age: “However much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy.” Hall covers his usual topics through the lens of aging – his life and work, New Hampshire, family, the habits and passions that make life comfortable and interesting. With self-deprecating humor and sharp observation, he admits to lighting his easy chair on fire by losing a cigarette, gives a history of his beards, pays homage to the women who make his independent living possible, and laments the aggravations of an aging body. Hall is matter of fact about death: “Except in print, I no longer dwell on it.” Maybe not, but it’s poignant to read an octogenarian’s reflections on sitting with his dying grandmother and wife decades ago. As always, he is smart and fascinating. Describing the satisfying result of meticulous revision Hall notes, “A scrupulous passion of style – word choice, syntax, punctuation, order, rhythm, specificity – set forth not only the writer’s rendering of barns and hollyhocks, but the writer’s feelings and counterfeelings.” Indeed. “New poems no longer come to me . . . . Prose endures.” For which readers of Essays After Eighty will be grateful.

A beautiful story

I knew Lissa Warren, who lives in southern New Hampshire, is an accomplished editor and publicity director. She’s also a terrific writer. Her memoir, The Good Luck Cat: How a Cat Saved a Family, and a Family Saved a Cat, is beautiful. It’s not just the story of Ting, her family’s Korat cat, who came into their home when her retired father needed a pet to keep him company. It’s also a grown daughter’s love letter to her parents. It’s a story of illness, fear and grief. And eventually, peace, in part from life with Ting: “The clocks in our house were superfluous; we marked our time by the cat.” I don’t want to give too much away, because part of the pleasure of this book is Warren’s unfolding of the various facets of her story. This isn’t just another book about a special pet – it’s an incredible story of care and determination, love and devotion, and family.

Making an exception

I don’t usually review children’s books, but when a copy of Cat In the City, written by Julie Salamon and illustrated by New Hampshire artist Jill Weber, arrived in my mailbox, it seemed worthy of an exception. This time of year brings out the child in all of us, and adult readers are often looking for a book to share with children they may not see often. Cat In the City is that kind of book, a warm tale well told, whose hero, Pretty Boy, is a fluffy white stray who stumbles into the dog run at Washington Square Park in New York and takes up with its inhabitants as he escapes from the neighborhood hawk. When Pretty Boy meets his new canine friends’ people, his life is transformed. As the story continues, he manages to repay the human kindness he has experienced again and again. Weber’s colorful illustrations remind me of Maira Kalman’s – stylized and unfussy but full of life and movement and emotion.

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I finished Alexandra Horowitz‘s On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes last night, and earlier this week finished a book for next month’s column, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s A Million Years With You: A Memoir of a Life Observed.  Thomas is an amazing woman, who learned at an early age the value of being fully present (both to people and animals) and observing closely. More on her book in the column. Horowitz is a cognitive scientist specializing in animals — both women wrote very popular books about dogs. But her latest book looks at what we humans don’t see, hear or sense in our everyday environments.

On Looking is about Horowitz walking her own block and other city streets with eleven experts: her toddler son, a blind woman, an insect tracker, one of the foremost raccoon experts in the world, the artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a typographer, a physician, a public space specialist, a sound engineer, and her dog. On each walk Alexander immersed herself in the specialty of the person (or dog) she was with. By identifying signs that other creatures were nearby (or what lettering or types of stone reveal), understanding how the blind (or a toddler, an artist, a dog) experience the world, and so on with each of her walk-mates, she considered the unique perspectives of her experts, and all that was there to explore in plain sight.

All of us have experienced — at work, at home, in friendships and with our families —  the way differences of perception color our everyday experiences. What we each notice and what even those closest to us notice is not always aligned. But Horowitz reveals that not only do humans perceptions vary, but beyond that, we don’t give our full attention to what’s right in front of us. As a longtime (and very unskilled) student of mindfulness I knew this, but Horowitz’s book examines this phenomenon beautifully.

She finds as she walks around her block at the start of her project, “What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see . . . .” Throughout her fascinating research, walking with people who guided her beyond the familiar, Horowitz discovered “the unbelievable strata of trifling, tremendous things to observe.” She writes with humor and very accessible intelligence, as well as curiosity and admiration for her fellow walkers.

Will I ever be as attentive as she is? My monkey mind gets in my way all the time, and I’m not sure I can ever wrangle my synapses’ high capacity magazine with a mindfulness trigger lock. I recently read that creative types and “sensitive” introverts have overly active brains so maybe fighting the way my brain works is counterproductive, but some stillness and attentiveness has got to be better than none. I don’t expect to reach Horowitz’s level of attention on my next walk, but she’s given me a great deal more to notice.

Which brings me to the seeing part of the post: thanks to an attentive friend, I heard about and attended the rally in our town on Monday in support of our homeless community, who’ve been evicted from both public and private land and had their belongings seized, including donated tents handed out by a number of churches and social organizations when winter shelters closed. At the rally I noticed that one of the problems facing the homeless is perception: people see someone rough around the edges and assume mental illness or addiction. But the only accurate definition of someone who is homeless is that he or she has no home.

If you or I had nowhere to rest, clean up, or be safe, we’d look a little rough. As my friend Kellie’s sign said: poverty is not a crime. Treating it as such isn’t productive. Refusing to see the homeless will not make the problem of homelessness disappear. Thank God telling them to get out of sight won’t put them out of mind of the concerned citizens who were present on Monday. I’m thankful for those that not only see but also do, who are providing legal representation, practical support, and loving kindness to people who have little else in this world.

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