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Posts Tagged ‘The Artists Way’

Two nonfiction books I read this month also took me on journeys. First, I read However Tall the Mountain, by Awista Ayub. Ayub, an Afghan American, founded an exchange program for Afghan girls, and her book tells of her efforts, and of the lives of eight girls who played soccer through her program. It’s the girls’ stories that will grab you, as well as the author’s candid, unvarnished description of her experiences and theirs.

Then, I picked up Marek Bennett’s Nicaragua: Comics Travel Journal. Marek will be discussing this book at Gibson’s in January. While However Tall the Mountain touches less on the physical journey and more on the mental and emotional distance the girls traverse, Marek’s book is a travel journal, all about his trip to San Ramon, Nicaragua on a comics exchange.

I enjoy his storytelling through drawings. Like Awista Ayub, Marek is admirably forthright about the good as well as the bad, and their honesty makes both of these books good reads. I’d be suspicious of stories of Americans riding into a developing nation and changing lives exactly according to plan with no worries or unpleasant experiences.

Speaking of honestly assessing the good and the bad, last week I read Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. If you’ve ever had someone tell you, when you were dealing with something really difficult and upsetting, that it might be a “blessing in disguise,” or pointed out a “silver lining,” or worse, suggested that if only you stay positive, things would turn around, this is the book for you. Ehrenreich, whose writing is clear and persuasive and always backed up with excellent research, not only points out the inanity of such “bright-sidedness,” but also illuminates the dangers of accepting positive thinking as the cure all for everything from health to economic well being.

I was particularly disgusted with the examples of ministers preaching a sort of motivational speaker version of Christianity.  A recent Atlantic article explores the connection between the prosperity gospel and the housing bubble and subprime mortgage disaster. Ehrenreich traces the historical roots of prosperity preaching and its development alongside “positive psychology,” and shows that in the spiritual and the secular, America has become a nation that prizes blind optimism over critical thinking.

She visits motivational speakers at conferences, career coaches and preachers, psychologists and medical professionals. I found the passages exposing the shaky scientific evidence of positive thinking’s impact on health and well being particularly interesting. And I got vicariously angry reading about Ehrenreich’s experiences as a cancer patient. Angry and exhausted from advocating for herself and dealing with cancer, she was told she needed help so she could be more positive. She points out that this “blame the victim” psychology only makes people who are genuinely angry or grieving over an illness feel like they are partly the cause of their own misery.

As I read, I realized that one reason I struggled with The Artist’s Way last winter is that I didn’t believe that changing my attitude would bring me success, so the book made me feel like a failure. My “morning pages” didn’t open up untapped creative veins. And I wasn’t willing to undertake some of Cameron’s advice about imagining your way to a new life, because I would rather be happy with reality. In fairness, The Artist’s Way isn’t only positive thinking, but the stuff that made me rebel as I tried to follow the book is all based in the same psychology Ehrenreich critiques in Bright-sided.

The Teenager just made an elite soccer club in our area — on his second try.  He worked hard to earn a spot this year. Reading Bright-sided made me squirm a bit as I realized we’ve told him, each time he’s faced a disappointment such as being cut or sitting on the bench, to keep working hard, but also to have a positive attitude. We never actually counseled that his goals would be realized through positive thinking, but we definitely encouraged it.

We’ve always struggled with this; all parents do. How much do you encourage your kids to “dream big” and when should you point out that much of the world’s game is rigged, and that for the average person, the odds are not very high that fame and fortune await? Only in the last year did it dawn on us to just tell him that in some cases, he probably never had a chance, because a coach already knew who he wanted on a team, or something else kept him off a squad — size, position, or even just random bad luck. Not to mention not very well-connected parents.

I discussed the book a bit at the dinner table, and pointed out that I hoped both kids could see that sometimes, it’s not whether you’re good enough, or hope hard enough for things to go your way, but that other factors entirely beyond your control might keep you from achieving something you really want.  We talked about not giving up, figuring out what incremental steps might get you to your goal, accepting responsibility and working hard, but also accepting that life isn’t always fair.

Sometimes chance or politics get in the way, and all the positive thinking in the world can’t help. Critical thinking might, as could a little rabble rousing on behalf of a just cause. Conscious acceptance that despite the odds, you want to keep trying is fine, too, maybe even brave or admirable.

I got the “duh mom” reaction so I guess my kids are less susceptible to being “bright-sided” than I feared. I suspect that their early exposure to a mother fired up by social justice issues helped them understand at a far tenderer age than I that what Bono sings is true, “Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.” They also saw through Habitat’s work that sometimes a change in circumstances can make all the difference. Plentiful access to reading material can help people go places, I’d say . . . .

I finished four other books this month: Haiku the Sacred Art, by Margaret McGhee; All That Work and Still No Boys, by Kathryn Ma; and two poetry collections by poets who will be at Gibson’s in December for The Gift of Poetry — an evening featuring many poets from NH. I read Jim Schely‘s As When, In Season and Jennifer Militello‘s Flinch of Song.

McGhee’s book arrived in the mail and I tried to figure out why for a couple of days before I came across one of my own poems in her text and realized “Ah ha! This is my contributor’s copy!” It’s an interesting look at poetry writing as a meditative, spiritual experience. Haiku is still one of my favorite forms, and this book helped me remember why.

Schley and Militello are both very talented wordsmiths. Flinch of Song is brainy and rich, the poems are full of mystery and have an incantatory quality. Militello’s subject matter is mainly the internal world, but her poems are full of external images. This creates a wild (and beautiful) ride for the reader — you never quite know where you are, as you grasp at what’s real and what’s imaginary. These poems are mind blowing, and I’m in awe of Militello’s powers.

Schley’s book also explores relationships and the creative process (including a section of odes to the muses). My favorites in this volume are “Daughter,” “My Father’s Whistle,”  and “Devotional,” which are moving tributes to the beauty of small moments in a life.

I also enjoyed “Autumn Equinox” — Schley manages to convey what Frost called a “lovers’ quarrel with the world,” in this case, the poet’s distress over war, but he does it with such subtle skill, and in such a lovely poem, that it doesn’t hit you over the head with the “issue.” War poems are hard to do well, and this one is marvelous. Schley’s talent is in weaving a quiet spell, while Militello’s fiery work is like a blast from a wizard’s wand. Both were a treat.

Ma’s book won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. It’s a collection of ten stories featuring Chinese American characters. A Gibson’s customer recommended it.  Ma’s writing is strong, original, and detailed. Her stories are tight, complex, and well drawn. That said, they are mostly depressing; some of the stories offer more redemption or transformation for the characters than others. My favorites were “Second Child,”  “The Scottish Play,” “For Sale By Owner,” and “Mrs. Zhao and Mrs. Wu.”

I’m about halfway through  The Fortune Cookie Chronicles — thanks, Mom! I’m fascinated by Jennifer 8 Lee’s curiosity — she seems to be a fellow traveler on the life learning road — and I admire the way she pursues her questions about Chinese food (the All American version) all over the globe. Lee comes across as warm and funny, and her book is interesting and well written. It made me curious, although not quite brave enough to ask, where the proprietors of my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant are from, what brought them here, and what they think of American Chinese food.

We ordered Chinese food on Thanksgiving Eve — I’d been cooking and baking all day, and it was a treat. Now it’s the day after Thanksgiving. Fueled up on our traditional turkey eggs, turkey salad, and turkey soup (okay, and some leftover pie), I’m entering the final laps of NaNoWriMo — you can watch the counter on my bookconscious page turn over to the “Winner” badge when I cross 50,000 words (probably Sunday or Monday).

As always, I have a pile of books waiting for me. My neighbor lent me a couple of novels, and I still have books Jan passed on to me, as well as a stack of books by authors I’ve scheduled to come to Gibson’s. I’m ready for winter, with plenty to read squirreled away!

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In February 2008, I began tracking my reading at Goodreads. As of today, I’ve added 106 books to my lists there. Four of those are on my “currently reading” shelf. I’ve read 102 books in the past 13 months, which may explain why I am often sleep deprived.

Goodreads is a social networking site for readers. You can keep track of what you’ve read, see what friends are reading, and read reviews of books. It’s a helpful tool for me, but I have to admit I haven’t done much social networking with it. I’m a little shy about sending my friends invitations to join stuff online. But I do use Goodreads to help me write each month’s musings here at bookconscious.

Last month I mentioned that I’m reading The Artist’s Way, a twelve week program to revitalize creativity.  Last week the exercise I was supposed to do was give up reading for the whole week.  It was one of those weeks where a lot of things went wrong (sick kids, worn out tires, broken stove, gray skies), so I wasn’t in the mood to have a book tell me to quit reading, but I also just can’t conceive of such a thing.

My Goodreads list breaks down to an average of 8 books a month in the last year. I also try to read the numerous magazines that pass through the bookconscious household (many due to airline mile subscriptions). At one time or another over the last year that’s included New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, Wired, Time, The Economist, National Geographic, and Science News;  also Cooking Light, Bon Apetit, Episcopal Life, and a number of nonprofits’ publications, like Nature Conservancy Magazine); writing and literary journals (The Writer, Poets & Writers, Frogpond, bottle rockets, Modern Haiku, Isotope, Envoi, the Poet’s Touchstone); a local daily newspaper, and a few New York Times articles a day.

Maybe I am addicted to reading. Maybe, as the author of The Artists’s Way suggests, reading is blocking me from accomplishing my life’s work. But I’m more of a “glass half full” kind of gal, so I have another thought: maybe reading is my life’s work. It seems to me that reading informs not just my writing, but my life. I am what I read.

Reading has been important to me for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid, I loved getting a new issue of a magazine in the mail, loved checking out a stack of library books, loved curling up with a book at my grandmother’s house that she’d left on the bed for me. Reading is why one of my favorite places at college was my study carrel at Julia Rogers Library, why I went to graduate school to become a librarian, why I love helping a friend or a child find something good to read, why I tend to chat with fellow library patrons and bookstore goers.

So, for now, the “reading fast” is not happening.  I understand the point — take a break from reading and see what else happens if your life — but I’m not really looking for a reading replacement, because I see reading as a source of creativity, not a distraction. As a guest blogger for NHPR’s Word of Mouth, I find ideas by reading widely. A number of my poems have grown out of something that struck me in a magazine or a book I’ve read. Reading feeds me.

I told the computer scientist I thought it would be more relevant to find out what would happen in my life if I gave up cleaning the house. Or falling down the Internet rabbit hole when I check email. So instead of cutting back on reading, I’m cutting back on chores.

I’m only going to dust, vacuum, and mop every other week, and I’ve vowed to let it go if the kids forget to clean their rooms or the family room (instead of doing it myself — they either do it or they live with dust). I’ve also unsubscribed from a number of email lists that were sapping more energy than they were creating. I’m anticipating creative sparks and more reading time

With that I am going to get on with telling you what the bookconscious household has been reading.

The computer scientist finished a book he got for Christmas, Stephen King‘s Just After Sunset. He’s a huge King fan, and he says this collection includes “classic Stephen King” stories and “re-readers” — one thing I’ve noticed is that I can tell if something’s bothering my better half or if he’s getting sick, because out come the old reliable Stephen King books. In fact, he re-reads The Stand during every major illness. I’m not going to try and analyze that, but it’s a good way to tell if he’s really feeling poorly.

He also just finished Dennis Lehane‘s The Given Day, which his mother recommended. He said it was enjoyable. It’s a popular book at the library with a long reserve list, so while he was waiting, he tried Lehane’s collection of short stories, Coronado. On his Goodreads review he says the “character relationships were excellently developed and thoroughly believable.”

We’re reading The Great Gatsby in our lit crit circle with the teenager. I told my grandmother, a former teacher who still discusses books with me at 95, that although I’m pretty sure I read Gatsby in high school, I don’t remember the beautiful language.  She chuckled and said that getting her students to read Gatsby was like pulling teeth, and assured me it’s perfectly normal that the teenager isn’t enjoying it as much as his parents are.

The computer scientist and I both noted this passage: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” The teenager admitted this was very nice, but was aggravated that each of the first three chapters of Gatsby seems to introduce a different story, and said it’s hard for him to be excited about the selfish people doing boring things in this book. But he’s hanging in there to see what happens.

More to the teenager’s taste lately was The Ultimate Hitchiker’s Guide to the Universe, which he called “weird,” but which held his attention for over 800 pages. He also finished Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby‘s memoir about football fandom in the UK and Hornby’s own passion for Arsenal. The teenager’s first real jersey was from Arsenal, and he once asked, when he was going through puberty and was having one of those alter-ego fits of angst, why we couldn’t have raised him in England so he could be steeped in real football from infancy.  He says Fever Pitch is “eye opening” and that it describes what it really means to be a fan.

Europe is on his mind right now, because he’s going to Freiburg, Germany this summer (on a soccer exchange, to train with the youth team of a semi-pro club). He  just started Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD 1000, which he asked for after reading a review in Atlantic Monthly. The teenager is a big history fan, and he’s also enjoying The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors. He finds the story of science very interesting, and says he likes that it’s not quite as political as other aspects of history.

If all that seems a bit heavy, don’t worry. He’s also reading Bill Bryson‘s Neither Here Nor There, because it’s about Bryson’s travels in Europe, and because as far as either of my children is concerned Bill Bryson is the wittiest man on the planet. In fact, we can drive for hours in complete peace and tranquility, with no sound save spontaneous outbursts of laughter, if we’ve got a Bryson audio book playing. My daughter has entire passages of I’m a Stranger Here Myself memorized.

She read a couple of Fairy Chronicles this month and started Carl Hiassen‘s latest children’s book, Scat. This wise child is the person who taught me to put down a book if I’m not feeling excited to get to the end, and that’s how she felt about this one.

On her brother’s recommendation, she’s reading The Amulet of Samarkand, which is book one in the Bartimaeus Trilogy. She says she enjoys the “remarks” Bartimaeus makes, because he’s funny. She is also a huge comics fan, and has been enjoying a couple of Foxtrot compendiums (quick aside — comic strips have taught my kids everything from history to vocabulary, algebra to physics, and usually without their feeling “taught to”).

Maybe because so much of the news is unpleasant, I’ve been seeking humor in my reading as well. Like the kids, I enjoy subtle wit as much as laugh out loud hilarity.  The Uncommon Reader is a delightfully witty novella which opens with Queen Elizabeth II discovering that a mobile library visits Buckingham Palace every week. She begins to read and to discuss books with the young man she meets in the bookmobile, who she promotes from working in the palace kitchens. Author Alan Bennett imagines what the reading life might do for the Queen, and if you love books and reading, you’ll find his ideas both reasonable and fun. And you may occasionally disturb your partner’s sleep by laughing out loud; I did.

Less humorous, but more helpful for burrowing through some of the impenetrably illogical nonsense that sometimes passes for news, is Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking. This handy little book is a short introduction to argumentation, and I enjoyed it so much, and found the explanations so clear, that I’ve ordered it in paperback to have around the house. If more people learned to argue logically, rather that shout soundbites or quarrel, our society might be more civil. As my grandmother has always said, “you can’t change everything, but you can do your best.” So I’m making good thinking a goal and I’m going to encourage it in my family!

Both Being Logical and The Uncommon Reader are books that were on my “to read” list. But I also sometimes peruse the new book shelves, particularly at Ohrstrom Library at Saint Paul’s School, where I worked last summer.  I found two great reads there recently.

Early in the month I picked up What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami. This short memoir has a unique focus — the author’s life as a runner, and how running and writing intersect in his life. I am not a runner and have no desire to be, but I loved the book, in part because of its novelty; reading a book from another culture is a vicarious vacation from one’s status quo.

But cultural appeal aside, I also liked Murakami’s perceptions, and the fact that he’s a life learner. You get the sense that he’s always trying to improve, which I can identify with. He pursues his interests passionately, and he seems to embrace his own curiosity. And he writes about his sense of human interconnectedness, which is something I like to think about, too.

I was so intrigued by the memoir that I went back and checked out the first of his novels that appeared in English: The Wild Sheep Chase. It’s so unlike anything else I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, that I am not sure how to even do it justice here. The story is mysterious and its conclusion blew me away.

And yet it’s not just a mystery. I’d say there’s a philosophical slant to it, a love story, and an examination of friendship, loyalty, and even patriotism. The computer scientist has been to Japan several times, and he says it’s a mind blowing experience, because absolutely everything is overwhelmingly foreign to a non-native.  The Wild Sheep Chase felt that way. I’ve checked out another of Murakami’s books which I am going to start tonight.

Also on Ohrstrom’s new book shelves, I found P.F. Kluge‘s Gone Tomorrow. This one is also a mystery of sorts, but instead of a missing body, the protagonist is looking for a missing manuscript. He finds himself named literary executor to a famous author he’s met only a few times on the campus of the small college where they both teach.

He comes across one manuscript, which turns out to be a memoir of the author’s final year at the college. But despite multiple references to “The Beast” — the novel this author has allegedly been working on for decades — no one knows where the great man’s great work is, or if it even exists.

My only beef is that the women in Gone Tomorrow seem like stock characters. But if you’re looking for a unique page turner, check it out. Both Kluge and Murakami are authors who draw you in with local color, interesting characters who are not perfect people, and intriguing possibilities. Both Gone Tomorrow and The Wild Sheep Chase keep readers guessing without screaming “mystery.” I really enjoyed both authors and I plan to work my way through the rest of their books.

But first, I wanted to read the March selection for Gibson’s book discussion group: The Syringa Tree, by Pamela Gien. It’s unusual in that Gien wrote it as a play first, before turning it into a novel. In fact she also performed it as a one woman show.

Set in South Africa around the time that Nelson Mandela is beginning to rile authorities, it’s the story of a girl growing up with a mentally ill mother and a doctor father who is a very good man, but frequently absent. One of the constants in the girl’s life is her nanny, Salamina. The Syringa Tree is a dramatic story set in a dramatic time, and a book I stayed up late trying to finish because I was anxious to know how things would turn out.

Gien wrote the play after a story telling exercise in an acting workshop. A couple of The Syringa Tree‘s key events, which really happened in Gien’s childhood, came back to her in the workshop. As a writer, I find that trigger both inspiring and a little awesome — what might I remember that could feed me this way? I don’t think anything in my childhood was as dramatic as Gien’s experiences, but it’s helpful to hear, as I plug away at my narrative time line, about another author’s experience mining memory.

My poetry reading this month was inspired by a workshop I took at St. Paul’s School in late January with Joseph Millar. I read both of his books, Overtime and Fortune, so I’d have an idea of where he might be coming from. I’d describe his poetry as masculine, gritty, but in many ways also delicately crafted. I picked up some interesting ideas in his workshop, such as looking at a draft and assuming the first line isn’t really at the literal first line you’ve written, but deeper in the poem somewhere.

After the workshop I read poems by Philip Levine, Robert Lowell, and Jack Gilbert, all of whom Millar recommended. He used Levine’s “Grandmother In Heaven” as an example of a poetic character sketch, and he referred to Lowell and Gilbert as other examples of poets whose characters stand out.  I read Lowell’s Life Studies and Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, and also read poems online. The poetry tool is a great place to find biographical information as well as poems.

I’ve got a few poetry journals on my reading pile, as well as Haruki Murakami’s The Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. After reading The Syringa Tree I dug out Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa’s Borders by Jason Carter, who is President Carter’s grandson. It’s a book I bought at a library sale some time ago, and it’s about the author’s stint in the Peace Corps, which began just as Nelson Mandela finished his term as president  of South Africa. I’ve only read the beginning but so far it’s fascinating.

And isn’t that why we read? Fascinating nonfiction, page-turning fiction, poetic prose and poems that feature well crafted characters — there’s so much to learn, so much to absorb, and so much to discuss or write about, so many reasons to stay up late, laughing and crying. One man who thought kids’ books ought to be all of that instead of boring and didactic, who helped change children’s literature forever, was Dr. Seuss.

It’s his birthday today, and the kids and I learned that addition to enlivening “beginning readers,”  Dr. Seuss sent his friend Art Buchwald a special version of Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!, which Buchwald ran in his column on July 30, 1974.Take a look and you’ll see it’s a piece of Americana. Nixon resigned on August 8th. I wonder if he read the column?

My daughter and I chatted about Dr. Suess’s stories this afternoon, and the way they are incredibly fun but also often include a philosophy to live by, like caring for the earth (The Lorax), being truthful (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street), and caring about each other rather than about how much stuff we have (How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Obviously he’s fairly heavy handed about the “message,” but for some reason the stories are incredibly appealing nonetheless. My daughter is usually quick to put down “preachy” books, but she said she likes Suess.

So we hung out by the fire on a snowy March day, and I read aloud, both the historical version of Marvin K. Mooney and, by request, The Lorax. Even the teenager listened with amusement. You’re never too old to for Dr. Suess. And I can’t change everything, but I can do my best. Books will guide my way.

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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 GoldSelf-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!

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