Wednesday, February 24, 2016

61 Books (1–10) — updated 2/24/16

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

10. Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (2015) (2/24/16)
I tried to read Eat Pray Love and couldn't get into it. Not because Gilbert isn't a good writer; more likely because most memoirs do little for me. But I enjoy her inspirational speaking, with Oprah on tour, at TED Talks. So I figured this new book had a good chance for me.

I was not disappointed. It's a very easy read. It's chock full of upbeat and inspiring stories. And there are definite moments of wisdom that hit me just right, just now where I am in my (seemingly eternal) quest to figure out what the hell I'm doing.

The main sections, each consisting of numerous brief chapters, deal with what she calls the essential ingredients for creativity: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, and Trust—ending with a splash of Divinity. As she points out, these elements are universally accessible—"which does not mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible."

Here are a few bits I dog-eared, somewhat randomly:

In a chapter titled "Entitlement," she discusses "the arrogance of belonging" (coined by poet David Whyte), "an absolutely vital privilege to cultivate if you wish to interact more vividly with life. . . . [It] is not about egotism or self-absorption. In a strange way, it's the opposite; it is a divine force that will actually take you out of yourself. . . . Because often what keeps you from creative living is your self-absorption (your self-doubt, your self-disgust, your self-judgment, your crushing sense of self-protection." Instead, we must loudly, and constantly, proclaim our intent and entitlement to be creatively engaged with the world—or, even more narrowly, to simply be.

In "Stubborn Gladness," she has this to say about inspiration: "I choose to trust that inspiration is always nearby, the whole time I'm working, trying its damnedest to impart assistance. It's just that inspiration comes from another world, you see, and it speaks a language entirely unlike my own, so sometimes we have trouble understanding each other. But inspiration is still sitting there right beside me, and it is trying. Inspiration is trying to send me messages in every form it can—through dreams, through portents, through clues, through coincidences, through déjà vu, through kismet, through surprising waves of attraction and reaction, . . . through the pleasure of something new and surprising, through stubborn ideas that keep me awake all night long . . . whatever works. Inspiration is always trying to work with me. So I sit there and I work, too. That's the deal. I trust it; it trusts me."

What you produce is not sacred, she writes. "What is sacred is the time you spend working on the project, and what that time does to expand your imagination, and what that expanded imagination does to transform your life. The more lightly you can pass that time, the brighter your existence becomes."

She favors curiosity over passion. "Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living . . . accessible to everyone. Passion can seem intimidatingly out of reach at times—a distant tower of flame, accessible only to geniuses and to those who are specially touched by God. But curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity. The stakes of curiosity are also far lower than the stakes of passion. . . . In fact, curiosity only ever asks one simple question: 'Is there anything you're interested in?' Anything? Even a tiny bit?"

In a chapter called "Hungry Ghosts" (referring to an unchecked ego), she calls ego "a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.
. . . My saving grace is this, though: I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul. And I know that my soul doesn't care a whit about reward or failure. My soul is not guided by dreams of praise or fears of criticism. My soul doesn't even have the language for such notions. My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder. And since creativity is my most efficient pathway to wonder, I take refuge there, and it feeds my soul, and it quiets the hungry ghost—thereby saving me from the most dangerous aspect of myself."
And finally, her last chapter is worth quoting in its entirety. It's called "In Conclusion."
Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.
What we make matters enormously, and it doesn't matter at all.
We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.
We are terrified, and we are brave.
Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.
Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.
Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise—you can make anything.
So please calm down now and get back to work, okay?
The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.
9. Marion Winik, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead (2008) (2/20/16)
This series of portraits of people Winik has known or who touched her life in some way, and who have died, is beautifully written. She names these people with labels: The Showgirl (her step-grandmother), The Skater (her first husband), The Bad Influence (a friend of her son's), The Driving Instructor (her father), The Big Sister. Thus we are presented with archetypes who are at once marvelously specific, described with crystalline details. There is even a beautiful description of a house, destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

The strong point for me of this collection of fifty-one small pieces (only a couple span more than two pages) is the way she attempts to describe the feelings that death leaves us with.

Of The Clown (a short-time lover), she writes: "Perhaps the real memory, the memory I'm still looking for, is not accessible this way [by trying to recall the details]. Perhaps it is heat, pressure, cells. The purple blooms on the morning glory vine outside my window, lit neon by the sun. Already closed the second time I look."

Or this, about The Bon Vivant (the friend of a friend, who had found his mother's body when he was nine, and thirty years later committed suicide himself): "When he left us, it was like taking Saturday out of the week or May off the calendar, and yet somehow we had to get used to it. If anyone knew this, it was [him]. . . . I am sure he was counting on it."

Or The Baby (her first, stillborn): "The only thing I knew was what I'd learned at my job writing computer manuals: when some mysterious awful thing happens and the whole document disappears, you have to open a new file and start over. That is all you can do. Twenty years later, I don't have any better ideas. . . . Don't you see how lucky I was? If I had to lose him, at least it was before I knew him, before all my love poured out of me like milk. At least I could still start over."

Then again, she also says this: "I don't know how the hell we go on, knowing what we know."

This is a short book, a quick read but a rich one. I may return to it with pen in hand and study it more thoroughly for lessons (writerly, lifely) it can teach me.
8. Steve Almond, Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto (2014) (2/18/16)
I am not a football fan. I do not understand the mania that overtakes people when it comes to two packs of oversized men mauling and maiming each other over possession of a ball. There is plenty to not recommend the sport, starting with the 30 percent of retired NFL players who, according to actuarial predictions, will suffer "long-term cognitive ailments"—never mind those who actually die on the field after suffering multiple concussions. The game is vicious, savage, and the fact that some large percentage of Americans delight in watching the gratuitous violence . . . well, it floors me.

Steve Almond, who is a lifelong football fan, wittily and yet with angry passion lays out other reasons football is damaging to the American psyche. One is that it is corporate power at its darkest. Here's Steve:

"The moment football became a business, violence was no longer just a moral problem. It was a money problem.
 "This, of course, is the big dance of capitalism: how to keep morality from gumming up the gears of profit, how to convince people to make bad decisions without seeing them as bad. We have whole industries devoted to this voodoo, the dark arts of advertising, marketing, public relations, lobbying. Every day, an army of clever men and women are devising new ways to get us to enjoy tobacco and animal flesh and petroleum and corn syrup without suffering the harsh aftertaste of guilt, without dwelling on the ethical costs of these pleasures. Oftentimes, you will hear some academic type marvel at the American capacity for self-delusion. Here's our secret: we're soaking in it.
 "I mention all this not just to get my socialist jollies, but to emphasize the larger system within which modern football operates. From the perspective of its governing body, the NFL, the game is a multi-billion-dollar product. And those of us who love it are not innocent fans rooting for our teams to prevail. We're consumers. Our money and attention are what subsidize the game."

And it's not only the fans who subsidize the game. We all do, even if we deplore football. We, the taxpayers, the consumers of modern American culture, build the stadiums for the billionaire owners.

Steve raises other issues as well. For example, do you think it far-fetched to view football as a reenactment of slavery (rich white owners, mostly African-American players with few options for getting ahead), thus reinforcing racism? And what about the expense to high schools and colleges (and again, to us taxpayers, not to mention students pursuing degrees that may actually benefit society)—colleges that serve, in essence, as NFL player factories? Does football give permission for, even encourage, bullying, abuse, and disrespect?

I could go on, but no: if you find this issue of interest, I recommend that you read the book. I'll end with the final words of Steve's afterword:

"Football isn't our destiny. It's not some spectacle we have to stage to keep the seething masses opiated. It's just a game, one we use to find grace and meaning and common ground with other fans.
 "Those are all lovely human pursuits. But they can be achieved by other means, ones that don't force us to crouch behind delusion as we sponsor cruelty, as we squander the human virtue most worth defending, which is mercy."
7. Patti Davis, Two Cats and the Woman They Own, or Lessons I Learned from My Cats (2006) (2/6/16)
The other day I visited the house I lived in from age seven to eighteen (and occasionally beyond, while attending UCLA for BA and PhD), for the first time since my mother died eight years ago. Living there now is Patti Davis, President Reagan's daughter. She is also an author, and she gave me three of her books. Including this one, which I polished off in a delicious half-hour. It features her two cats, Skeeter (now gone) and Aretha (whom I met: she's nineteen), and is delightfully illustrated by Ward Schumaker.

Skeeter and Aretha teach Patti several important lessons, including:

"It's true that love can lead to sorrow and hurt, but avoiding love is never a good solution. Hearts are meant to be open and full, not kept safe behind walls. Pascal said, 'When one does not love too much, one does not love enough.' "
"Change is always hard, but time softens the rough edges and eases the pull of the past. Eventually, we all climb out from under the bed, and even the most unfamiliar places begin to feel like home."
"Be understanding of what others have gone through in their lives, even if it has left them with some odd habits. There is no such thing as normal—we're all a little quirky."
"Not everyone who comes into your life is supposed to stay there. Sometimes you're just a way station. Love them while they are there, love them when they move on, and trust that we all find our true home eventually."
6. Karen E. Bender, Refund: Stories (2015) (1/12/16)
I have a general practice that I'm trying to keep up, of reading at least one short story or essay or cluster of poems every day. I have many, many volumes to choose from (some of which are Best of . . . collections), and my typical approach is to randomly open to one. I get a variety that way.

These past couple of weeks, though, I've been focusing on this single volume by Karen Bender, which was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award. Her writing is strong and rich, her characters believable, the situations an interesting balance of realistic and yet slightly over the top. Money—not enough—is often a theme, or more generally "the space between desire and satisfaction" as Andrea Barrett puts it on the jacket blurb. Bender's view is both bleak and funny, but above all, full of humanity.

I started out flagging passages I especially liked, but stopped about halfway through. By then the overall emotional tenor had hit a steady pitch, so even though the beautiful writing continued, the message was more or less the same: life isn't always easy; connection can be mysterious; disappointment seems always to be just around the corner; life is full of longing. Here are two representative bits:

"They had moved to a midsize city in South Carolina. It was not their first choice, and they did not know if they would ever feel at home there, but they could afford, finally, a small house as well as a car. They had found their own happiness, weighted by resignation: that were who they were, that they could never truly know the thoughts of another person, that their love was bruised by the carelessness of their own parents (his mother, her father); that they would wander the world in their dreams with ghostly, intangible lovers, that their children would move from adoration of them to fury, that they and their parents would die in different cities, they they would never accomplish anything that would leave any lasting mark on the world. They had longed for this, from the first lonely moment of their childhoods when they realized they could not marry their fathers or mothers, through the burning romanticism of their teens, to the bustling search of their twenties, and there was the faint regret that this tumult and exhaustion was what they had longed for too, and soon it would be gone."

Or simply: "What did one owe for being alive? What was the right way to breathe, to taste a strawberry, to love?"
5. Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Keeper of Lost Causes (2007) (1/10/16)
I enjoy a good mystery, and I don't expect too much. This one had an interesting structure; some good characters (the lead duo in particular are a treat); crafty details in the perpetration of the central crime; the resolution was satisfying. I did feel like I was reading a translation (which couldn't be helped: it was, from the Danish). I give it only three stars on Goodreads, though, because of the overall premise: I couldn't quite buy the motivation, after so much time had passed. *Maybe* people carry a grudge for twenty years and then finally act on it, but . . . maybe not, is more my way of thinking: they go off in a different direction to exercise their rage, hurt, and sorrow. And there was a little too much t-and-a. And just two-dimensionality in the characters. But all that said, it was a good mystery--and I don't expect too much! (I gather it is being made into a movie. Yes, it would make a very good movie, I think. Of a certain sort.) Now, on to some literature that has a little more weight.

Oh, and here's the only line I highlighted (I read this one on Kindle): "Nothing in this world was straightforward. Not even springtime lasted; that was the most painful thing about reliving it every year."
4. Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (2015) (12/24/15)
I don't tend to read thrillers, but I was intrigued by a five-star
review on Goodreads by a reader whose opinion I trust. The thriller
 aspects of this book—torture, sex, rioting mobs, murder, greed, treachery, plot twists galore—I didn't mind because they fit the story line, and of course the genre. But what kept me going was the dystopian futurism of the book, which was very well imagined. It's the American Southwest not too long from now, after the rivers have run dry. Immense towers of bioengineered opulence, arcologies, exist for the "fivers," that 1 percent that can afford to purchase, through either action or cash, watered safety. Everyone else lives in a constant dust storm, clustered around humanitarian wells, struggling to survive. Into this setting comes the rumor of an ancient deed to water rights, control of which will determine the future. I enjoyed the conceit of Marc Reisner's classic, cautionary Cadillac Desert being a keystone of sorts in this 21st-century tale. The Water Knife certainly is a page turner, and the ending worked for me.

You don't read a book like this for the writing per se, but here's a couple of short paragraphs that I liked, in part because they are, simply, true—today, as well as in this frighteningly plausible near future:
"This was never about believing. . . . This was about looking and seeing. Pure data. You don't believe data—you test data. If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around."

"She thinks the world is supposed to be one way, but it's not. It's already changed. And she can't see it, 'cause she only sees how it used to be. Before. When things were old."
3. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015) (12/18/15)
I posted about this book as my daily blog entry, but the short version is that although I don't highlight in books, I was wishing for a Kindle version with its highlighting features, because "there were so many passages that went on and on lyrically, beautifully,
passionately, angrily, hopefully, and all sorts of emotionally and
intelligently, that I wanted to keep, somewhere, somehow, so I could reread them and continue to learn from them."
I loved this book. It is a journey into consciousness.

I copied a few passages into the blog, but here's another one that speaks directly to me: "I surveyed the railway schedule and became aware that I was one wrong ticket from Vienna, Milan, or some Alpine village that no one I knew had ever heard of. It happened right then. The realization of being far gone, the fear, the unknowable possibilities, all of it—the horror, the wonder, the joy—fused into an erotic thrill. The thrill was not wholly alien. It was close to the wave that came over me in Moorland [Howard University library]. It was kin to the narcotic shot I'd gotten watching the people with their wineglasses spill out onto West Broadway. It was all that I'd felt looking at those Parisian doors. And at that moment I realized that those changes, with all their agony, awkwardness, and confusion, were the defining fact of my life, and for the first time I knew not only that I really was alive, that I really was studying and observing, but that I had long been alive—even back in Baltimore. I had always been alive. I was always translating."
As Tony Morrison says: "required reading."
2. E. L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1969) (12/13/15)
Back in November, I wrote about some of my favorite children's books. A couple of people in their FB comments mentioned this one. I hadn't read it, figured I should. And so now I have.

I liked it fine. The adventure of running away to the Met and having a mystery to solve is great, and many of the details—like using their violin and trumpet cases as valises, or finding money in the fountain by foot-touch in the dark, or the musty smell of the sheets of the bed they slept in—were wonderful. But some things rubbed me wrong. Like, would a sixth-grader run away just because? That strikes me as something a younger child might do, but not a smart, well-adjusted eleven-year-old. And would a nine-year-old boy really say to his sister, "Claudia, dear, I'm no angel. Statue or otherwise" or "Where, dear Lady Claudia, dost thou expect to bathe"? Even if they are playing Elizabethan gallants. And at the very end, a little twist of sorts: it turns out the lawyer to whom the entire story is directed is the kids' grandfather—this after Claudia just said all their grandparents are dead. Yet I don't recall any mention of estrangement from grandparents. That threw me for a loop. And never mind the coincidence that the running-away story would have a connection to the lawyer in the first place. I don't mind suspending disbelief—in fact, I rather enjoy it—but the story that makes me do so has to be seamless.

Of course, this is a kids' book, from 1969, and if I'd read it as an eight- or ten-year-old (though I couldn't have, since I was 14 when it was published), I bet I would have been sucked in thoroughly and not minded these niggling irritations. It is a good story, and all ends well—and Claudia gets what she wants, which is to go home different.

Here's a passage I liked: "It had been an unusually busy day. A busy and unusual day. So she lay there in the great quiet of the museum next to the warm quiet of her brother and allowed the soft stillness to settle around them: a comforter of quiet. The silence seeped from their heads to their soles and into their souls. They stretched out and relaxed. Instead of oxygen and stress, Claudia thought now of hushed and quiet words: glide, fur, banana, peace. Even the footsteps of the night watchman added only an accented quarter-note to the silence that had become a hum, a lullaby."

1. Colum McCann, Thirteen Ways of Looking (2015) (12/9/15)
A novella and three short stories: about an old man's death, a soldier in Afghanistan thinking of her lover back home, an Irish woman whose deaf adopted son goes missing, and a nun finding salvation from a decades-old horror. Exquisite prose; beautifully wrought characters and emotions. Very impressed. Yes, I will be reading more McCann.

A passage in the novella that I liked: "Poets, like detectives, know the truth is laborious: it doesn't occur by accident, rather it is chiseled and worked into being, the product of time and distance and graft. The poet must be open to the possibility that she has to go a long way before a word rises, or a sentence holds, or a rhythm opens, and even then nothing is assured, not even the words that have staked their original claim or meaning. Sometimes it happens at the most unexpected moment, and the poet has to enter the mystery, rebuild the poem from there."

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