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Posts Tagged ‘writers’

This was my last week off before grad school starts back up again, and coming off a stack of thick novels I decided to read some nonfiction. I picked up Seeds at the Five Colleges Booksale last spring. I love trees, and this book is about Richard Horan‘s travels to various writers’ (and a few other important cultural figures’) homes to gather seeds from trees that would have been around at the time the person lived there (witness trees). His longer term plan was to plant them and grow new trees.

It was a pleasant read for a stressful week — those of you who work in higher ed know that the weeks between semesters are crammed — and I enjoyed it, although by the end I was ready to move on. Horan is passionate about his project and meets interesting people along the way. He strikes a good balance between talking about his travels and seed gathering and sharing interesting information about both the trees and the people whose homes he visits. His project is interesting, although the website he set up to tell the continuing adventures of the trees doesn’t seem to be around anymore, so I’m not sure how things turned out.

In the “extras” section in the back of the book there are some anecdotes he heard about Betty Smith (yes, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) from people who knew her, and that was a real gem that I wish wasn’t hidden past the end of the book. Horan’s writing is at its best when he is enthusing about something that had a lasting impact on him, whether a book he read when he was young or a person he met on the trips for this book. I also enjoyed his willingness to engage in unvarnished and deserved critique here and there, whether about the white-washing of historical sites (example: there are no slave cabins at Mount Vernon and white people hoe the garden when Horan visits; I think shortly after, a slave quarters did open), the devastating tree cutting at Gettysburg National Military Park (which took out witness trees along with those the park service wanted to be rid of), or our one size fits all education system. That said, he’s a little hard on docents. They’re just volunteers, man, they are probably doing the best they can.

Seeds is more than what my Dad calls a “palate cleanser,” but is still easy to dip into if you don’t have the bandwidth for something heavier. It made me want to read Eudora Welty immediately. I admit to cringing here and there at some lines that clanked for me, but then I’d come across something like this description of Welty’s eyes, “scattering thoughts and sucking air out of every head and chest they made contact with.” Or his Bill Bryson-like description of yelling back and forth to be heard over construction machinery with the Yaddo publicist about the famous literary retreat’s noise mitigation efforts.

Recommended for anyone who likes trees, books, and/or travel narratives.

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In my last post I wrote about The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble, and over the last week I finished the trilogy, reading A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory. These books are the continuing story of Liz Headland, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer, friends since their late teens when they arrived at Cambridge, in their fifties by the end of The Gates of Ivory.

A Natural Curiosity also focuses on a few other characters who are introduced in The Radiant Way but don’t play a large part in the first book. For example, Shirley, Liz’s sister, and others who live in in Northam, where Alix has moved. Drabble also discusses one of her signature topics in this book — marriages, and how they work or don’t. We watch Shirley and her husband Clive as his business implodes and Esther, faced with a proposal after being single and mainly living alone her entire adult life. We see a middle aged lawyer in Northam whose wife starts a torrid affair, trying to carry on. And her girlhood friend, who is married to a famous archeologist, who are happily married even though they don’t seem to be at all suited. And Liz, seeming to grow closer to her ex-husband, Charles, who left her so dramatically in The Radiant Way but has come home from Washington and is in the process of a divorce.

There’s also a fair bit of politics in these books, which is one of the critiques of them that I’ve seen in reviews. Personally, I don’t mind. I also empathize with the characters, who find that their views shift a bit as they mature, but who are also disappointed, even disillusioned to see the world as it’s evolving. Unlike Liz and her friends I was never an apologist for communism, and as a young person I didn’t really have well thought out views. I parroted the views I’d heard as a child from adults, and it wasn’t until I had children that I began to think for myself about what I valued, and to try to understand what various political views meant practically in the world and whether any politicians or parties actually represented my views.

Drabble’s characters are surer from the start, and a few really live their views in accordance with their views — like Alix and her husband Brian, and Brian’s best friend Stephen Cox. In the second book, Alix is trying to help Paul, the serial killer, now jailed near her home in the north, who lived above Esther’s flat and killed one of Alix’s students in The Radiant Way. And almost the entire third book is about Stephen Cox trying to get to Khmer Rouge territory (which in the early 80s were officially out of power and not in charge in the cities, but still controlled parts of the Cambodian countryside).

Cox is a Booker winning novelist and we watched him grow closer to Liz in the second book. In fact it is at dinner with her that he says he’s going to go and see what happened, and why the communist ideal didn’t work in Kampuchea, and write a play about Pol Pot. Liz is a little alarmed, but doesn’t stop him. In the beginning of the third book she receives a package containing some finger bones and packet of fragmented writing — notes, sketches, journals. The novel bounces between scenes of Stephen making his way to Cambodia and meeting various people along the way (including the wonderful Thai business woman Mrs. Porntip), and Liz and others back in England.

She and Stephen’s other friends decide they have to determine what happened to him. Drabble introduces a character who narrates bits of The Gates of Ivoryat times addressing the reader directly, Hattie Osborne. She is Stephen’s agent and a former actress, and the night before he leaves they attend a friend’s 70th birthday dinner and a party and in the wee hours he suggests she stay in his apartment while he’s away. Hattie, it turns out, was also at the party at the very beginning of The Radiant Way, and is additionally an acquaintance of Polly Piper, Alix’s former boss.

It’s this social network — the myriad ways Drabble’s characters’ lives interweave — that made me think last night as I finished The Gates of Ivory that these books would make great television. I can see them adapted for a multi-season drama. These books together tell not only the story of three women and their friends and relations, but also of England, through the post-war years, the Thatcher years, the massive social, economic, and political changes. of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and the art, theater, music, and media that Liz and Alix and Esther and their friends enjoy. In this way, Drabble’s books are like Jane Austen’s, social in more than one way — they examine the lives of particular families but also the life of a society, with all the layers that entails.

 

 

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I wanted to like this book. First, I wanted to like it because it took me two weeks to slog through The Trial. I was ready for a quick, satisfying read. I wanted to like it as well because people I like recommended it and my book club is discussing it.

But, as a fellow librarian told me today, it could make for better discussion since I didn’t like it. Maybe. Anyway, I couldn’t warm to the characters or the story. For the same topic — woman overcomes emotionless  (or damaged) upbringing, allies with desirable man, uses her own talent to launch him and pretends to all the world that she is just a muse and not the real talent — see Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Which to me was still a strange story about people I couldn’t identify with, but which seemed both wilder and more complicated and somehow also more likely. I just can’t accept the premise of The Wife. I didn’t dislike the writing, so I kept reading, but in the end, it didn’t work for me.

 

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Cork Boat is one of the titles I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale. Yes, I am going to read The Scapegoat; it’s our June book club pick. It hadn’t arrived yet, anyway, so I decided this would be a good distraction from the various stressful things in my life. I was right.

John Pollack was a political speechwriter when, disgusted by the gridlock in Washington (sadly, about twenty years ago), he decided to take some time off to pursue a boyhood dream: building a boat made of corks. In Cork Boat he tells the story of how he organized dozens of people — friends, relatives, neighbors, and even strangers — to help him and his good friend Garth Goldstein bring the boat to life. Along the way, he took a job writing speeches at the Clinton White House, returning to his previous job working for Michigan Congressman David Bonior after the election, and even taking a job writing for an expedition to Antarctica. None of this kept him from pursuing his dream boat, and when it was finished, getting it shipped to Portugal where he and Goldstein and an assortment of friends and family members helped them travel from Barca d’Alva to Porto on the Douro River.

It’s an enjoyable book, one that might make you want to travel off the beaten path, or cause a little wistfulness for whatever you dreamed of as a child. It’s also a good reminder that in a world often fraught with conflict, hardship, struggle, and hardship, we could all benefit from paying attention to the cork boats in our lives. Maybe no one you know is doing something on this scale, but you probably know someone who is pursuing a hobby or past time just for the joy of it, or to prove to themself that they can reach a particular goal, or to bring people together around a common purpose. If you seek those stories, they’re out there to enjoy among the din of political rancor, intolerance, and human suffering. Cork Boat is a decent place to start.*

Quick aside: for May, my book club read Waking Up White by Debby Irving. It’s written in a style I didn’t enjoy — very brief chapters with questions at the end of each, which makes it kind of choppy and occasionally repetitive — but it was thought provoking, and led to a good discussion about white privilege and racism. We decided we’d recommend it to people who haven’t really explored these issues.

*Good News Network isn’t a bad place to look, either.

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One of my book club friends mentioned Less was what she wanted to read next and it’s on several “best” of the year lists. Which I have a long history of quibbling with — I don’t like them because I feel like people should read whatever they like, which is not necessarily what critics like, but the former Teen the Elder convinced me to to stop judging and just have fun with them. Good advice. End of digression. Anyway, it was on the shelf at my library, and I hadn’t read Andrew Sean Greer‘s work before, so I decided to give it a try.

Less refers in part to Arthur Less, the hero of the story, whose former longtime lover, Freddy, is about to get married. Less decides to avoid the wedding by accepting a series of trips — some related to his work as a writer, some for pleasure — and string them together into a months long exodus from San Francisco, where he and Freddy live. He’ll venture from California to New York to interview a more famous author, to Mexico for a conference, Italy for a prize ceremony, Germany to teach a writing class, Paris on an unexpected layover, Morocco for a 50th birthday of the friend of a friend (Less will turn 50 there, too), then India for a writing retreat and Japan to write about kaiseki meals.

Less is a writer of lesser known novels, and in New York his agent tells him that his longtime publisher has rejected the most recent one. He’s also most well known for being the former partner of a Pulitzer prize winning poet. The reader begins to realize that this status as less-than is the defining characteristic of Arthus Less. Also he’s the type of person who bumbles into minor mishaps such as not being able to get into his German apartment, speaking foreign languages badly, losing his favorite suit to a tailor’s dog, getting locked in a room when a 400 year old door is stuck, and losing his luggage. Although really, who could travel that far without a bag being misrouted? He also bumbles into more pleasant surprises, which are so delightful I won’t spoil them for you here.

All of this endears Less to readers and to his friends. His story resonated with me in a way because I too faced that milestone birthday this year, and the wistfulness it can incite. My life hasn’t been as colorful or accomplished as Less’s but I get the feelings. Greer’s writing is beautiful and original without being overdone in that “look at me, I’m writing unconventional fiction” way that can be annoying. While the narrative is linear with a lot of passages looking back at earlier times in Less’s life, the narrator asserts himself as someone who knows Less, rather than as an impersonal third party, a little like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. But the narrator also turns out to be a character described in the third person throughout the novel as well, which is fun.

The language is fun too — describing Less trying a new outfit in Paris boutique, Greer writes, “He looks like a Fire Island supervillain rapper.”  There’s a wonderful passage where Less loses the “wedding” ring his famous author partner gave him (pre-marriage equality) in a bin of mushrooms and a group of other men think he’s going to be in trouble with his wife and try to help him find it. In Japan he sees “tourist buses parked in a row along the river their great side mirrors like the horns of caterpillars” from a rental car that “basically feels like an enameled toaster.” All the details of his travels are also delightful.

Less seems like a sad book, or at least a melancholy one, at first. But as you journey with Less things begin to look up and the ending is just lovely. It’s a book about a flawed human bumbling along but mostly doing fine. And even being happy here and there. A good read.

 

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I found this book as I find many — I was checking in returns at the library. I’m interested in Tolkien, and have read a number of books by C.S. Lewis. Both offspring the Elder and the Younger have to read Lewis for courses this semester. And the Elder has told me repeatedly, no other fiction satisfied him once he read The Lord of the Rings books in his early teens. I’ve also long been interested in WWI. My grandmother brought Vera Brittain to my attention when I in college, and I have always been fascinated by the literary response to war.

But let me get back to the book at hand, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. The point of my digression is that I was primed to really enjoy this book. I found myself marking pages as I read, which is usually a good sign. For example, I was interested in this: “The conceit of the intellectual elites of the day was that science, and the technology it underwrites, could solve the most intractable of human problems.”

Which is where we are again today — I touched on that a bit in my review of It’s Your World. We believe we can solve poverty, illness, and even conflict. And we can — potentially. We are to some extent. The Computer Scientist quoted some of the latest Harper’s Index last night, which notes, “Estimated percentage change in the rate of extreme poverty worldwide over the past twenty years : –66 Chances that an American believes the rate has “almost doubled” over that period : 2 in 3.” We humans are a complicated lot — we believe we can do anything if we set our minds to it and we also believe we’re screwing everything up. Perhaps because for every person working on ending human suffering there seems to be another who is profiting from it, and it’s hard to tell which is prevailing in the daily stream of bad news.

Loconte goes on to explain however, that Tolkien and Lewis saw in trench warfare “the horrific progeny of this thinking,” about science’s potential, and thus endowed their fictional characters more realistically with “a tragic mix of nobility and wretchedness” which they related to “the Fall,” which Tolkien claimed “lurked behind every story.” But, it seems a bit of a leap of logic to me to suggest that because science was supposed to be man’s salvation, WWI’s betrayal of that idea caused a loss of faith in mankind, and Tolkein and Lewis, because of their exposure to this, created characters who are both heroic and flawed. I’m not sure all of that follows, necessarily, and even if I agreed with the logic, it’s a very incomplete picture.

Also while Loconte correctly notes that many Christian denominations went awry in supporting eugenics and nationalism and endorsing WWI, I think it’s also over-simplifying to say that the war “instigated a new season of religious doubts.” As this British Library article notes, there were many social and cultural causes for the decline in organized religion both before and after the war. But organized religion is not the same as faith, and while I am sure it’s true that many people struggled with faith in the face of such horrors, others discovered it, or found it strengthened. Churches changed over the ensuing decades, sometimes for the better (like not preaching eugenics anymore), sometimes for the worse (like supporting white supremacy). But religion didn’t die, nor did faith.

And many religious thinkers, or writers influenced by faith, born before, during, or after WWI, continued to focus on how we should live  — Tolkien and Lewis, yes, but also (in no particular order, and not meant to be a comprehensive list) T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Rumer Godden, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Sayers, Paul Tillich, Wendell Berry, Donald Hall, Jane Gardam, Alan Paton, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr. Loconte declares faith rare among “the literarti” which is an overgeneralization. Sure, there were a lot of secular writers in the early to mid-20th century, but those for whom faith mattered are hardly lightweights or unknowns.

The most interesting parts of A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War are the sections where Loconte talks about Tolkien’s and Lewis’s friendship, and other friendships that sustained them as writers and thinkers. I wish those sections had been longer. Also, the book is so heavily footnoted that I began to wonder what Loconte himself thought; was this book simply a review of others’ theories or his own?

So, I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t love it. However, it made me think and got The Computer Scientist and me talking about how combat impacted his thoughts on faith, and any book that sparks conversation can’t be all bad.

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Poet Jeffrey Skinner has written a sort of insider’s guide to the “PoBiz,” The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets: a Self-Help Memoir. He identifies the 6.5 practices of the title, quotes many excellent poets, pokes fun at certain self-important aspects of the poetry world, and attempts to encourage those who are inclined to throw up their hands in despair. While much of book is mostly of interest to writers, I’d recommend the memoir sections for anyone who enjoys personal essays.

Some of Skinner’s advice will be familiar to anyone who has read writing books or attended workshops. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. The final essay of the book, “The Family Guy,” is a thoughtful take on popular culture (yes, the title refers to the animated television show) and the place of poetry in it. He suggests poetry is not limited to the literary form, but can be “an immediate, intuitive grasp of meaning. . . confirmation that some measure of grace extends beyond the visible.”

Skinner challenges readers to “get right-sized about the place of poetry, the stuff we read and write, and to consider it as one particularly rich and complex example of wider poetry.” In other words, we shouldn’t “assume it is the only cathedral in the pines.” He exhorts readers to empathize with this wider poetry, not only in service to our own literary betterment but because “non-poets surround and vastly outnumber us.” (emphasis mine)

True. Maybe more people would read poetry if it was more widely understood in relation to poetry as Skinner defines it above. The same could be said for any art existing in tension with its commercial alter ego. Discuss.

Check out Skinner’s Periodic Table of Poetic Elements  (the section in the back of the book, The Noble Gases, is even better). Or, as he suggests, go bowling. Whatever you do, check out this book, which is one of the most original writing guides I’ve ever picked up.

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