Monthly Archives: June 2015

Books I’ve Loved Recently

My friend Lindsey writes a blog (www.adesignsovast.com) where she shares things she’s loved lately.  I thought I’d take a page out of her book and share some recent books I’ve loved lately.

You may think that I only read highbrow, but it’s not true. I read anything that’s well-written, honest, or entertaining. I sometimes push myself to read things that I think I’m not interested in because I know that’s one way to continue to grow, but in general I read voraciously within my preferred genres: fiction, historical fiction, literary journalism, true crime, adventure, sci-fi, poetry. I can’t help but read like a teacher, though; I’m always looking for that book that will push people to connect — with characters and cultures in books, or with each other as readers of a shared text. Here are a few that I think accomplish this well:

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is so good. I did have to start it three separate times, though, because the chronology is so confusing at first. A child, Ursula, is born on a terribly snowy night in England and depending on the page number, she either lives to become an astonishing variety of adult women, or dies at any number of points in time within her infancy and childhood. Atkinson’s creativity, her ability to immerse readers in so many different scenarios, all of which feel like “the true story,” is remarkable.

Ursula is a strange character because she lives outside of linear time and remembers events from the past; this makes her appear odd and somewhat of a loser to the world around her that doesn’t understand why she takes certain actions, like pushing a maid down the stairs in order to save a family from catching influenza. But given that in one of her lives, she kills Hitler before he has a chance to effectuate the Holocaust, we can’t help but cheer her on.

Alice McDermott’s Someone is the kind of book that puts you in a particular mood; it follows a girl and her brother through pretty simple lives in Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th century. The writing is so beautiful, though, and there are countless moments when you think, yes, this is exactly how life is sometimes. Marie has trouble with her vision, loses her father and ally, and is raised by her mother in a religious household.

She asks her brother, a top scholar destined for the priesthood, who will ever love her. “Someone,” he says. “Someone will love you.” And someone does, a good guy who gives her a family and a comfortable life. Yet there is never a sense of total contentment or happiness, for Marie or for her brother, and again, that just rings true to me.

Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls seemed to call to me from the bookshelf just this week. I don’t usually pick up graphic novels for young adults, but this one just wanted me to buy it. And I’m glad I did, even though the story was tough for me to read. Conor is losing his mother to cancer and so angry and confused about it that he lets himself be bullied and turns against his only true friend.

The book’s short, perfectly written chapters tell the story of Conor’s coming to terms with the truth of his mother’s illness as well as the truth within himself. A Monster, a timeless being that comes walking when called, pushes Conor to face all of what’s inside his heart. The Monster tells Conor that he’ll give Conor three stories, and expect one in return at the end. The only rule is that the story Conor tells has to be true.

Ness’s four stories within the overarching book are masterfully told, with the voice of the Monster so wise and harsh that Conor has no choice but to give into the inevitable storytelling he himself must do, and the acceptance that comes with that truth telling. Illustrated by Jim Kay, this little book is quite powerful and definitely not just for kids.

I always love to hear what other people are reading, so please send word. Happy summer!

Time is But a Stream or, Flowers for Lisa

Today while walking along a windy Wyoming road, I thought about Emerson and Thoreau. I have always liked what they have to say about nature, solitude, society and the self, and I have taught “Self-Reliance” and Walden for years even though my students have invariably begged for fewer pages of both.

I don’t keep up with Ralph Waldo and Henry David just for kicks. To me, they are master teachers of the hard-won lesson, rhetorical, spiritual, or otherwise.  Their sentences may seem to go on for miles, but once you get used to the waters of their prose, you quickly become saturated in their wisdom.

For example, Emerson said of solitude, “when it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” Being alone was quite a different thing in his mind from being lonely, and today, on a walk by myself in the wind and sunshine, I couldn’t have agreed more.

After looking for some time at the big, open sky, I looked down, and saw brave, brightly colored wildflowers defiantly growing in the dry soil. My breath caught as I realized that these were exactly what I wanted to bring to my sister’s grave on Sunday. Lisa died seven years shy of her 50th birthday, which our family will mark this weekend on June 21.

Thoreau’s words began to weave through my thoughts — two lines I and my students have never understood, and have struggled with for years: “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in; I drink at it, but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”

Today, I think it means that we live in and out of time, a sparkling stream that we dip our feet in and out of as we go along.

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Seasoned Language

Anthony Lane, in a brilliant review of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s recent book on Lewis Carroll’s life and work, featured in the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker, poses a great question: what is the difference between knowing about something and knowing it firsthand?

Lane uses Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to explore this question, and as one who has always loved the story of Alice, but has never actually read Carroll’s book from start to finish, I was completely swept up in Lane’s argument in support of consuming original books whole in addition to summaries, reviews, or homages.

In the past, says Lane, anyone who could read had read the story of Alice in a topsy-turvy world. But today, Lane points out, most of us know Alice through what he calls “cultural osmosis” — she has been talked about and featured in such a variety of media that we may even believe we have read the book about her, when in all likelihood we have not. And he points out that the need to do so is “more urgent than ever.”

Why? It’s not that Carroll’s work is so life-changing that without reading it, we can’t be complete. Certainly there are some disquieting aspects of this book and its author. The point Lane is making is that there is no substitute for firsthand experience of marvelous language like Carroll’s. Lane aptly describes Carroll’s style as being “peppery” and “brisk,” “impatient of folly” and “alive to the squalls of emotion that we struggle to curb.”

Original language seasoned with a dash of brio or a pinch of flair grabs our attention and pushes us to expand our own ideas and expressions. But don’t take my word for it; read Lane’s peppery review of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for yourself.