Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Innocent Murderess



 
How many times have I aimlessly wandered the aisles of a bookstore picking up and putting down books whose covers catch my eye? How many of those times have the books I've bought either collected the dust of years on shelves unread or been read and completely forgotten?  One mislaid day in 2002, the book goddess smiled on me, and I happened upon my first Margaret Atwood. I had no idea who she was at the time and have no idea to this day why, on one of my rambles through a bookstore, I picked up a copy of Alias Grace. What I do know is that for the next 15 years, if pressed to choose a favorite book, this random treasure was it. All my life, I've read so much that I struggle to choose a favorite book, but somehow and for reasons I still don't fully understand, this one caught me.  After all the intervening years and so many more books, including new Atwoods, I will have to revise my assessment to say Alias Grace is now one of my favorite books.

This summer, my daughter read it for the first time and urged me to re-read it. As usual, in Alias Grace, Atwood defies easy categorization.  Psychological thriller, historical fiction, gothic mystery, interpersonal drama, character development and study, elements of all those fill the pages of this entertaining read. Just like many of the novel’s characters, I found myself captivated and haunted by the ever elusive Grace. Is she a cold-hearted, calculating murderess or a na├»ve, innocent rube?  Or, as I suspect, like most of us, is she much more complex and nuanced, harboring some qualities of both?

Maybe the not knowing, the uncertainty is the point. Once again, Margaret Atwood proves to be prescient. With all the recent discoveries about the fallibility of memory, with all the current failings of justice in our country and our world, and with some of our deepest spiritual leaders finally beginning to address the darkness as well as the light in all of us, we would all do well to learn to pause and think and reserve judgment more often than passing it.  The cautionary tale of Grace Marks teaches us, if nothing else, that the voiceless and the vulnerable are always the easiest to blame.  But is that kind of easy injustice what we want to embrace?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Second Half-Century

 
Anna at Guedelon
photo by Amy Brandon


As I have neared and now passed age 50 over the last couple years, I find myself changing slowly, like a jagged mountain eroding into a smooth stone, more likely now to be prone to naps than to tempests.  As my emotions settle, my mind seems to wake and clear, and my reading interests move in different directions.  Often,  I find myself reading ten or eleven books at a time now. This became possible only when I learned to let go of goal-oriented reading.  Usually, eventually, I will finish what I start, but not always.  Even if I don’t finish, I still find I take something positive away from most books.  I look at reading now more like mining for gold dust than like searching for the Hope Diamond.  Not every book is a diamond, but most contain at least a little pretty dust.

Right now, at this point in my life, I feel like I’m reaching the end of the person I was and am on the cusp of a new and different person.  I hope this new person will be able to write more. I’ve missed writing about what I’ve read.  For a time I came to feel like I either didn’t have anything new to say or wasn’t able to express what I was thinking. Maybe we all have to get quiet and shut down for a while to clear our minds for new thoughts and new ways of being.  Wisdom seems to come at a glacial pace, if it comes at all, no matter how many books I devour, but I will keep on devouring them, looking for those traces of gold dust.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

We Miss the Log in the Mirror Every Time



"The high point of my day was seeing Frank emerge from the chrysalis of his closet to unfurl his sartorial wings." 

My Book Guru is three for three so far this year.  It's time for another dinner and book discussion so I can get some more ideas! Her third recommendation, Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson is an entertaining little novel about a reclusive author and her ten-year-old autistic son and their "forced" cohabitation and interaction with an assistant from the author's publishing house.

MM Banning (Mimi) is a literary one hit wonder. Upon publication, her only novel becomes a huge hit, quickly earning its place in the school canon, and its author just as quickly retreats into herself, literally and figuratively, and is not heard from again for many years.  (Shades of Harper Lee's life.) During this reclusive period, Mimi mysteriously becomes the mother of an autistic son.  He is her only relative and she his, and for a while, all is well, until she becomes the victim of a scam artist and realizes she needs to produce another book to provide financial security for herself and her son, Frank. In order to write, Mimi needs help tending Frank, thus the presence of Alice, the assistant who serves as the book's narrator, in Banning's home.  Given Frank's propensities, this task becomes almost Herculean in the effort it requires. Most of the book centers around Alice's attempt to find a way to develop a relationship with Frank. I won't say more.  If you want to know how this turns out, read the book.

Several of the novel's themes resonated with me, especially given our current cultural climate. Both Mimi and Frank, each in her or his own way, are almost too sensitive to exist in our society as it stands now. When are we going to learn not only to accept but to embrace and celebrate difference?   It's way past time for us to grow up and stop being threatened by and afraid of difference among us. That's what our bent toward tribalism and isolationism really is...fear.  We are so afraid of those who are different that we band together en masse to expel them from our sight.  How far removed is this from the practice of leaving our weak for the wolves?  Think about that every time you find yourself telling someone to find a way to fit in or to "get over" injustice.  How do we, as a society, respond to people who perpetrate banal and sophomoric cruelties like the ones Frank has to endure in this lovely little novel? Do we reject them, or do we elect them?  Funny how we seem to be able to see the cruelty in others' stories but not in our own.  To paraphrase one of my favorite teachers:  we see the splinter in someone else's eye from 50 feet but miss the log in the mirror every time.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Undermajordomo Minor


photo by me

"His heart was a church of his own choosing, and the lights came through the colorful windows."

Thanks once again to my friend, Jennifer, for a fantastic reading recommendation!  I think I'm going to appoint her my Book Guru.  I hope she will find the title pay enough.  Feel free to use it as a resume builder, Sister.

When she recommended Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt, she said that she had no idea how to describe it or how to explain why she liked it.  I completely concur with that assessment.  It's a quirky novel full of likable characters and witty, engaging dialogue, but I don't really know how to explain exactly what it's about or even why I found it so compelling.  The best description I can come up with is an allegorical fairy-tale-type coming-of-age story about a lovable, dishonest and somewhat self-centered young man who leaves home, gets robbed, gets unrobbed, gets a job, falls in love with his robber's daughter, makes friends with said robber among others, makes enemies, gets murdered, gets unmurdered, finds himself abandoned, becomes unjobbed, and embarks on a quest to find his love and life.  How's that?

Here's what I know for sure:  I loved just about every minute of this book and miss the characters and their snappy dialogue and insouciant attitudes like people I wish I knew.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Norwegian By Night


photo by me
"Most things are both true and absurd." Sheldon/Donny 

Thanks to a recommendation from my friend Jennifer, I started 2017 off with an entertaining, quirky little book.  Norwegian By Night by Derek Miller is part murder mystery, part political thriller, and part introspective journal of an 82-year-old, Jewish-American, Korean War vet named Sheldon who is also named Donny.

In the last few years I seemed to have been drawn to anything set in Scandinavia, so I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the countryside as Sheldon/Donny attempts to elude both the Norwegian police and the KLA mafia-type bad guy whose son Sheldon/Donny has inadvertently kidnapped.

The book kept my interest and was a great diversion during the snow storm this weekend. I had never heard of either the book or the author, but I will definitely read his other work.  If you need a quick and entertaining read, I highly recommend this one.  Even better, I found it on Kindle for $1.99.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nontraditional Nonfiction

 

"Until we have found our own ground and connection to the Whole, we are unsettled, grouchy, and on the edge of falling apart...afterward, you know you rightly belong in this world, and that you are being held by some Larger Force.  For some seemingly illogical reason life then feels okay and even good and right and purposeful." Richard Rohr

Nontraditional Nonfiction: This week we will be focusing on the nontraditional side of reading nonfiction. Nonfiction comes in many forms. There are the traditional hardcover or paperback print books, of course, but then you also have e-books, audiobooks, illustrated and graphic nonfiction, oversized folios, miniatures, internet publishing, and enhanced books complete with artifacts. So many choices! Do you find yourself drawn to or away from nontraditional nonfiction? Do you enjoy some nontraditional formats, but not others? Perhaps you have recommendations for readers who want to dive into nontraditional formats. We want to hear all about it this week!

I thought this week's prompt was going to be one I couldn't do, as I almost always read print books, but after reading some of the other blogger's entries, I decided to broaden my thinking a bit about what I consider "reading."

I have discovered that nonfiction is often easier for me on Kindle than in print.  I think partly this is because on Kindle, I don't become discouraged by the sheer volume of so many nonfiction books.  Spillover by David Quamman, for example, is a book I have been struggling to finish for over two years.  I would make a little headway, then set it aside and not pick it up for months, until September when I decided to try it on my Kindle while I was in South Africa.  Once I migrated to Kindle, I finished the last half of the book in a little over a month.  It had taken me two years to read the first half.  I also find that I seem to be able to focus better on my Kindle than I do on print books.  I know this is counter to the experience I'm supposed to have.  I've read the studies.  I don't know how to explain it.  Maybe my brain processes backwards.  That would explain a lot, actually.  I think my next Kindle project is going to be Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.  I've been watching Making North America on PBS, and I read somewhere that this was a recommended read by the series host, Kirk Johnson.  I'm a sucker for a science book. I also like Kindle for my daily self-help type reading.  Right now on Kindle, I'm reading Richard Rohr's Breathing Underwater, The Upanishads, and re-reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.

Audiobooks seem to be a very popular nontraditional format for a lot of people.  My only real success with audiobooks has been comedy, David Sedaris in particular.  His voice is absolutely perfect for his stories.  I don't have a lot of time to listen to audio, and I find my mind often wanders when I try.  With the coming of winter, I hope to be walking at the indoor track more.  If anyone has any recommendations for audio books to listen to while I walk, please share them.  Just remember the options need to be light and fairly easy to follow, or I'll zone out.  Walking into a wall is not beyond the realm of possibility for me if I get too intent on what I'm hearing.

Although it's been several years since I read one, I have thoroughly enjoyed the graphic novels I have read.  Three that stand out in particular are Maus I and II by Art Spiegelman and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.  I've had Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi on my shelf for years.  May be a good time to get to that one.

Another different way I read is via email.  I subscribe to Richard Rohr's daily email, and most days I read it before I even get out of bed.  It's a good length for a quick but thought-provoking read.  In the last several months, he has published series on Buddhism; Jung; Nonviolence; Myth, Art and Poetry, and on AA's 12 Step program.  Check him out.  I love his work.

My last nontraditional format may be a bit of a stretch, but if audio books count, Podcasts should count too.  At one point I was trying to listen to TED talks, The Moth, Literary Disco, and several others, but I was getting overwhelmed and not really listening to any of them, so I've narrowed my Podcasts down to On Being with Krista Tippett.  I have never been disappointed with these weekly, thought-provoking conversations.  This week's interview with Lisa Randall (here) is especially appropriate for a Nonfiction November post. Now I want to read all of her books.  Sigh.  So many books, so little time.  I need to retire.











Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Whole World Sparks and Flames


photo by Amy Brandon

"But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn't flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames."  Annie Dillard

This week's Nonfiction November topic suggestion to pair a nonfiction book with a novel is easy for me, as two of the books I've recently finished lend themselves to pairing in multiple ways:  both are narrated by mountain-loving, independent-thinking women, both are set in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, both revel in the beauty of the natural world, and both are books I loved but would hesitate to recommend to everyone.  If all of that's not enough, my edition of Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith sports an endorsement by Annie Dillard, the author of the nonfiction part of the pairing, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  

I recently blogged about Fair and Tender Ladies (here), an epistolary novel which tells the story, through her own words, of Ivy Rowe, a Virginia mountain woman who is wedded more completely to her precious home mountain than to any member of the human race.   

The second part of this post is going to be a bit more difficult, not because I liked Pilgrim at Tinker Creek less, but because I loved it more.  I loved it more, in fact, than about ninety percent of everything else I've ever read.  Maybe I'm overstating, but probably not.  Now before you get all 1-Click happy and buy you a copy, hear me out.

There have been many times I've jumped blind and head-first after a book based on a blog rave and then been completely taken aback when I thought I was getting A Tale of Two Cities and ended up with an engineering text on city planning.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not a novel.  It is not linear.  There is no catchy dialogue, no clever character development, no plot twists, no climax, no denouement. What exactly it is defies definition.  It is poetry.  It is beauty.  It is a prayer, a meditation, and a continual revelation. It is water and light and wind and wild and earth and luminosity and brilliance and obscurity.  At its simplest, it is the journal of one woman's year on Virginia's Tinker Creek.  At its most complex, it is, well, I don't know, because I haven't grasped it all yet.  In between, it is theosophy, philosophy, theology, biology, entomology, and lots of other -ologies I can't name.  I am already re-reading it.  I suspect I will be constantly re-reading it over and over again.  It must be read slowly and thoughtfully and much of it must be felt instead of understood.  It is a balm for the weary soul.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek taught me to see. And oh, the things I have seen:

  • a dragonfly hovering right at eye-level, facing off against this odd-looking interloper in his territory on a paddle board,
  • a globular spider launching up and down, up and down, spinning against the back-lit, blue pink, twilight sky,
  • a hognose snake reared up and puffed up like a cobra looking dangerous and angry but in truth benign and terrified
  • scores of schools of fish, silver-bright twisting and turning in the jade waves as they break and reassemble all around me, my skin slippery with their quintessence
  • a pin oak leaf spinning in a crazy dance on a barely visible web filament in a breeze so gentle I missed it until I saw it transform a dead leaf into a gift of extraordinary, exquisite beauty.
I've spent countless hours looking at nature before.  I've been awed and inspired by her beauty before.  But usually, I was looking for the big picture, the grand view, the obvious impression. How many of these small, lovely things would I have missed simply because I never thought to look?  We see what we expect to see, and I fear this is more curse than blessing.  When you open your eyes, really open them, and look around, you find something breathtakingly beautiful in every minute, even it it's just the bright, iridescent green fly occupying the space where your hand will soon be on your car door.