John Steinbeck and Slow Writing

Clock, family photo

June 17, 1938

“Hope my nerves aren’t weak because they have a long haul ahead….Begin the detailed description of the family I am to live with for four months. Must take time in the description, detail, detail, looks, clothes, gestures. Ma very important. Uncle John important. Pa very. In fact all of them are important. Got to take it slowly. I don’t care how long it is. We have to know these people. Know their looks and nature. Must.”  Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938 – 1941, John Steinbeck

The Art of Slow Writing book coverI’ve just finished reading Louise DeSalvo’s wonderful The Art of Slow Writing.  I like slow cooking, slow cities and slow living, so of course I had to see what slow writing is all about.

In her book, Louise looks closely at every stage of the writing process and what it takes to achieve our best work.

Slow down, she recommends. Good writing cannot be rushed.

Slow writing is not a new trend: the best writers have always been slow writers.

Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jo Ann Beard, Virginia Woolf, Michael Chabon, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ian McEwan – DeSalvo synthesizes the wisdom of these and many other writers who have spoken frankly about what it takes to go deep into our creative process to achieve stellar writing.

Louise shows us her writing process, too (she has published several memoirs and other books), and shares anecdotes about getting stuck and how she eventually found a path forward.

Working Days book coverFor those of us writing a memoir or other book-length work, De Salvo recommends studying Steinbeck’s two published writing journals: Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath and Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.

I’ve begun skimming Working Days. Notice in the opening quote above that John Steinbeck reminds himself to take it slowly, and give each character his or her due.

It’s surprising to see how lost Steinbeck sometimes felt and how he used his writing journal to keep himself going. Here are more excerpts:

September 7, 1938

“I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too. I’ve wanted so badly for it to be good….if only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. I’ll be dead in a very short time too. [Steinbeck would live another 30 years.] So the hell with it….I must go on. I can’t stop…..How did I ever get started on this writing business anyway? To work.”

January 29, 1941

There are so many things to go into this book. An astonishing number of things. But I’ll get them all in if I just relax and get them in day by day and only worry about the 2000 words of each day’s work. That’s the only way to do it, I have found. But damn it, I have to learn it over again every time.

January 30, 1941

My head is a grey cloud in which colors drift about and images half-form. I’m bludgeoned and feel beaten by many little things. And I can’t figure answers to them. Maybe some people think clearly all the time and make nice decisions. I don’t know. But I feel very lost and lonely. 

The Grapes of Wrath book coverThe Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and contributed to Steinbeck’s winning the Nobel Prize in 1962.

It has stirred up a great deal of controversy, too. According to Robert Demott, editor of Working Days, The Grapes of Wrath has been “banned repeatedly by school boards and libraries, and denounced by right-wing ministers, corporate farmers, and politicians as immoral, degrading, and untruthful.”

A Free Roundtable with Louise DeSalvo

If you’re interested in finding out more about stages of the writing process and how to begin and successfully complete a book-length work, consider registering for the National Association of Memoir Writers free Roundtable (teleconference) with Louise DeSalvo on Thursday, March 5 at 7 pm EST, 4 pm PST. I’ll be in the audience.

Winter reading

Stack of books

 

I’ve been out of town. A stack of books from the library and online were waiting when I got home.

The Steinbeck work journals for East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath are recommended by Louise De Salvo in The Art of Slow Writing as essential if you’re writing a book-length work and want to learn about process.

Deep snow in backyardThe Age of Miracles is this year’s selection for “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book.” We love to read through the deep winters in our part of the world, and this novel of catastrophe and survival will be on many a nightstand here. Why not try it along with us – I’ll be writing about this debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker soon.

The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, a memoir, and Wolf Winter, a novel. I want to know more about my Scandinavian roots; biography, memoir, and fiction are a great way to explore ancestry and heritage.

Wendell Berry’s Our Only World (ten essays), because Berry is one of our greatest prophets, writing about the clash between humanity and nature and how we must do better. He’s been called a modern-day Emerson or Thoreau.

Backpacking with the Saints, a travel narrative and spiritual memoir. Belden C. Lane’s take on Celtic, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi Muslim writings as he treks the Ozarks and the American Southwest. The book jacket compares him to other lovers of the backcountry, including John Muir and Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir, Wild, was just released as a movie.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, is an overdue Christmas gift for my photographer son. This newly published series of interviews with the filmmaker is so popular it’s been out of stock. I hope he finds it worth the wait.

No one writes about creating art with as much love and eloquence as Vincent Van Gogh.

More about these in upcoming posts at Books Can Save a Life.

 

The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks book cover

 

“It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office–all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing–while denying–that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.”   The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

I debated whether or not to write a post about The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. At least twice, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish reading it, but I’d already invested several hours in the book, so I kept on when the going got tough. In the end, I’m glad I finished The Bone Clocks. I think it’s worth writing about here, even though I don’t pretend to grasp its full meaning.

I’d picked up The Bone Clocks in the first place because it’s been called a genre-bending novel by a writer who’s reinventing fiction, so I wanted to find out what David Mitchell and his work is all about. It’s nearly impossible to summarize the plot of The Bone Clocks, which blends literary fiction with fantasy (not a genre I’m attracted to) and dystopian literature. There are six linked novella-type sections that take place in 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015, 2025, and 2043 (with flashbacks to medieval and other times) in settings as diverse as Ireland, New York, Iraq, England, Switzerland, Australia, and Iceland.

Among the half a dozen or so featured characters, apparently a couple of them have appeared in Mitchell’s past novels, including Cloud Atlas, none of which I’ve read. Holly Sykes is the highly appealing central character, and she is largely what kept me going when I wanted to stop, although I found many of the other characters arresting as well.

The fantasy thread features Horologists, a select group of immortal people battling the evil Anchorites, who suck the souls from people to stay alive. “A Horologist’s Labyrinth” is the section of the novel fully devoted to the final battle between the Horologists and the Anchorites–by far the most irritating part of the book, for me. I don’t like fantasy to begin with, and this section seemed to be poorly written, especially considering the brilliance of the rest of the book, although one critic pointed out we’re not to view it as serious fantasy, but rather a tongue-in-cheek portrayal.

I’m not even sure I understand why the fantasy element is present, though I know Mitchell sees it as central to his theme. The bone clocks are mortal and often foolish humans who inevitably age, decline, and die; they are contrasted with the brilliant, wise and immortal Horologists. I refer you to critics and reviewers in the mainstream publications who do a much better job of “figuring out” The Bone Clocks, especially if you’re interested in finding out more about the fantasy elements. Much of this aspect of the novel is simply over my head.

I’m not familiar with British and Irish slang from the 1980s, and so getting started was difficult–the first section depicts Holly as a runaway teenager from a working class English town. Despite all these difficulties, the The Bone Clocks marathon has a tremendous momentum, and for long sections I was riveted. Here, I want to focus on the dystopian final section of the book.

What an incredible life journey Holly Sykes has, but its end is devastating. Mitchell’s version of dystopia, while not especially original or inventive, is nonetheless disturbing. It is the time of the Endarkenment. Humanity is on its last legs. Holly knows one big storm is all it will take to finish off her rural Irish village. She’s living in poverty, with little food, minimal electricity and no internet, in a world ruled by the Chinese and a society that has all but disintegrated.

I read The Bone Clocks during a long, record-breaking deep freeze. Boston, where life seems to have stopped, is in dire straits: snow removal costs have gone over budget by millions, people can’t get to work, schools are closed, businesses are suffering, and the subway system is all but shut down.

We live in a country where many people do not believe in climate change or evolution or vaccines.

My Ohio hometown is a shadow of its former self, mired in poverty and crime. The governor boasts about balancing the state budget, but at the expense of towns starved for funds.

A member of my family is getting expensive medical treatment that, if not for insurance, would mean bankruptcy. And yet, many of our government leaders are determined to take affordable health insurance away from millions of poor and middle class families.

I went to a grocery store yesterday that had only two clerks at the check-out. At the dozen or so self-check-out stations, customers struggled with an automated system that doesn’t work. The store was crowded with people wanting to stock up during the bad weather but, according to the wonderful check-out clerk who helped me, the management would not call for extra help. God forbid this large grocery chain cut into its profits to gainfully employ a few more people or, at least, make sure the stores are adequately staffed.

Could we someday find ourselves in our own Endarkenment? Are we headed in that direction? In The Bone Clocks, when the Endarkenment came, it came fast.

The Bone Clocks isn’t an easy read. If you’re intrigued, if you like challenges, if you want a taste of cutting edge fiction by one of the world’s most highly acclaimed authors, then go for it.

Have you read The Bone Clocks? What do you think of dystopian fiction? Do you see parallels with our current state of affairs, or do you think that’s taking dystopian fiction too seriously?

By the way, you’ll notice a Henrietta Public Library sticker on the cover of The Bone Clocks in the photo above. I want to give a shout out to Henrietta Public Library, which is wonderful, and its dynamic director, Adrienne Furness, who was on the 2015 Caldecott Medal Selection Committee.

A Wolf Called Romeo

A Wolf Called Romeo book cover“It was one of those still days when you could hear snowdrifts collapsing in hisses, the sun so dazzling off the white-crusted ice that we seemed suspended on a cloud, bathed in light radiating from below. There we lay, three different species bound by a complex, often bitter history, taking simple comfort in the others’ presence, the sun’s warmth, and the passing of another winter.”   A Wolf Called Romeo, Nick Jans

This winter I wanted to be sure to write about a remarkable work of nonfiction that I read a few months ago, A Wolf Called Romeo by Nick Jans. A winter storm is moving in to our parts today, so it seemed a good opportunity to settle in and revisit this captivating story about a very unusual wolf who “courted” the town of Juneau, Alaska. Nick Jans has lived in Alaska for more than three decades and is a nature writer of the highest order. If you love wildlife, wolves, and dogs, you won’t want to miss this book, and you’ll likely want to read Jans’ other work as well.

No one has solved the mystery of why a black wolf wanted to make friends with Nick’s dogs and the dogs of the other townspeople who let their pets romp in the vast open spaces outside of Juneau. The black wolf was playful and unfailingly polite, chivalrous, almost courtly, which inspired Nick’s wife to call him Romeo. For half a dozen years or so, Romeo seemed to confine himself to an area of about seven square miles outside of Juneau, whereas wolves usually roam a territory of hundreds of square miles. Romeo spent long days with his domesticated companions, while keeping his distance from their human owners. He’d disappear for days at a time; at least once Romeo was spotted with a pack of wolves that passed through the area.

This got to be a complicated and controversial situation for the citizens of Juneau. Many of them grew to love Romeo and were fascinated by the rare opportunity to observe a wolf up close, while others felt wolves were to be hunted or should stay where they belonged, in the wild. Some worried Romeo might attack their pets. Rules had to be devised about how to behave around Romeo. For example, Romeo was not to be fed, so as to keep his hunting and survival skills sharp. People were advised to keep their distance from Romeo and avoid physical contact.

It’s hard to believe that at one time Nick Jans hunted and killed wolves, because he is so passionate about protecting Romeo. He recounts the history of his own relationship with wildlife, as well as the fraught relationship between humans and wolves as the American frontier was settled.

Nick observed Romeo closely for several years. He recorded his observations with the intention of writing this book which was ten years in the making. I found myself worrying along with Nick every time Romeo disappeared. For, of course, Romeo’s befriending of the town also left him vulnerable to aspects of civilization that are destructive to wildlife and nature.

This is an emotionally powerful read. Nick Jans reminds me of Barry Lopez, a nature writer I greatly admire. Here, though, Nick has made the story of the relationship between humans and the wild very personal. Romeo is fascinating and haunting, a loner caught between two worlds, not fully at home in either one of them. Thanks to Nick Jans, his story has touched those of us who may go a lifetime without seeing a wolf in the wild.

You can catch a glimpse of Romeo here.

Here is a wonderful site to find out about wolves, Wolf Song of Alaska.

Norfolk pine in a snowstorm

A good day to read A Wolf Called Romeo

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

“On the bedside table by the living Buddha, now dead, was an old copy of Basho’s great travel journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Hashimoto opened it to a page marked with a dry blade of grass. Days and months are travellers of eternity, he read. So too the years that pass by.”   (Last book read before death by a WWII Japanese commander of the Thai-Burma Death Railway, in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North book coverRichard Flanagan’s father was one of nearly 3,000 Australian POWs who worked on what became known as the Thai-Burma Death Railway in World War II. Flanagan’s father survived. According to Wikipedia, estimates of the death toll are guesses: about 180,000 Asian civilians and 60,000 Allied POWs labored on the railway under inhuman conditions battling cholera, starvation, and beatings. Some 90,000 perished, including over 12,000 Allied POWs. Over 100 Japanese and Koreans were tried for war crimes, and 32 were sentenced to death.

I’m partial to WWII novels, but I don’t know much about the Pacific theater of the war, and next to nothing about the prisoners of war who worked on the Thai-Burma Railway. I’m so glad I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and encountered Flanagan’s extraordinary writing, but do not attempt it unless you can stomach brutally explicit prose about hellish conditions.

An Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, tries to save as many of the men under his command as he can, but his efforts are mostly futile. We see Dorrigo as a young boy in Tasmania, as a young soldier in an affair with his uncle’s wife who is the love of his life, as a prisoner of war, and as an older, successful, but deeply scarred surgeon and war hero.

There are several moving, intimate, stream-of-consciousness portrayals of other Australian POWs under Dorrigo’s command  as well. Especially riveting is a scene in which the Japanese commanders, cruel and relentless in their mission to get the railroad built, discuss the fine points of haiku. Flanagan follows these men after the war, too, those who managed to have others take the fall for their crimes, and their amazingly clear consciences after the war.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Man Booker Prize and has received many excellent reviews. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times  is more mixed in her review: she feels that Amy, Dorrigo’s lover, should have been excised from the book for the sake of unity and coherence; she describes Flanagan’s writing about the love affair as “treacly prose,” whereas I found many of these passages beautiful. I disagree with her assessment here.

Have you ever thoroughly loved a book or movie only to encounter a respected critic who points out how seriously deficient or flawed is the thing you absolutely love? At this link is an especially vicious review in the London Review of Books. Flanagan must have poured his heart and soul into writing about a terrible time that his father survived, and he spent years working on the novel. This negative review is not reasoned literary criticism that I value or trust, and I wonder what motivates the critic. Sometimes I think critics analyze so much creative work they become jaded, unable to approach a novel or movie in a fresh, unbiased way.

By the way, I don’t consider my blog posts to be book reviews or literary criticism. My intention is to write about how a book affects me, personally, or how I think it might affect you, the reader, or why it may be especially significant in some way. If I don’t feel a book is well written, or if it doesn’t speak to me in some strong way, I don’t write about it here.

I’ll leave you with a passage I especially love, about POWs newly home from the war:

“He brought the fish and chips to their table, then filled some small glass tumblers behind the counter with red wine and brought them out too. Then he sat with them. As they ate, he let them talk. When they flagged he talked of how such a winter meant it would be a good summer for apricots, yes….Then he started up about his own life….How people told him coming to his fish shop made them happy. He hoped that was true. I really do, he said. That’s a life….The old Greek made his own coffee for them – little cups, thick, black and sweet – and he gave them walnut pastries his daughter had made….The simple chairs felt easy, and the place, too, felt right, and the people felt good….”

The Narrow Road to the Deep North illustration

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North book coverBasho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, written in the 17th century, is a classic work of haibun, which melds haiku with prose. It makes for excellent reading alongside Flanagan’s contemporary novel.

Have you ever encountered scathing criticism of writing that you love? How does it make you feel? Does it alter or influence your opinion of the work?

 

 

Digging Deep

Narcissus, bookshelf

Taking this pic, I re-visited my long-ago college lit books on the bottom shelf: The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, The Norton Anthology of English Literature I and II, Victorian Poetry and Poetics, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Critical Theory Since Plato (oh, dear.) With many notes in the margins. Odd one out, a scriptwriting handbook. The “soil” of my literary leanings.

 

“I do believe that there’s something exquisitely powerful about taking something in nature and molding it with your own two hands. From the moment you dig up that first clump, you’re empowered because you immediately enter into collaboration with nature, and who better to be in collaboration with than the greatest force on earth?” Fran Sorin, Digging Deep

 

I have a delightful pairing to begin the new year: Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, the 10th anniversary edition by Fran Sorin; and Gardens of Use and Delight: Uniting the Practical and Beautiful in an Integrated Landscape, by Jigs and Jo Ann Gardnerpublished in 2002.

Digging Deep book coverYou don’t have to be a gardener to enjoy Fran’s book, though if you are, all the better. Fran says, “My  mission is to show new and experienced gardeners alike how they can use their gardens – be they rolling, manicured lawns or tiny, blank plots of land – as tools for their creative awakening. I believe from the depths of my heart that gardening can be one of the most profound ways to unearth the creative spirit buried within every one of us. Once you unleash this creative energy, you’ll be amazed at what happens in all areas of your life. You’ll begin to see how living creatively opens up new vistas in your imagination and new windows of opportunity in your life.”

I’m a new gardener, and gardening has become for me a pleasurable, relaxing complement to writing, perfect for getting my body moving outdoors in nature. As I write about growing up in a family flower shop, sowing and tending and reaping resurrect the fragrance of fresh blooms and damp soil, and many other sensory pleasures, from my childhood.

When I ran across Fran’s book online, I was intrigued with her melding of gardening and creativity. The first edition of Digging Deep was immensely popular, hence the 10th anniversary edition in 2014. I’m glad to have discovered it this time around. In addition to being a garden expert and deep ecologist, Fran is an ordained interfaith minister and a soul tending coach. I point this out because the deceptively simple Digging Deep is a profound and spiritual book that is part memoir, as Fran draws upon her own rich life experiences to tell the story of how she arrived at the wisdom she shares here.

I’ve found that to nurture a creative practice (mine is writing), it is good to have other creative outlets just for pleasure, quite different from your primary practice. These “low-stakes” pastimes give your mind and body a break from routine and stimulate your imagination by allowing you to play and experiment. This spirit of play permeates Fran’s book. Her chapters take you sequentially through the cyclical nature of gardening, and creativity: Imagining: The Spark of Creativity. Envisioning: Giving Shape to Your Dreams. Planning: Laying Down the Bones. Planting: Taking Action. Tending: The Act of Nurturing. Enjoying: Reaping What You Have Sown. Completing: Cycling Through the Season.

Here is a favorite passage from a section called “Appreciating”: “Savoring your garden brings more than just sensory pleasure, though – it fills your creative well. In the moments that you experience the reverie of simply being there without working or planning or doing anything other than just drinking it in, you can experience a heightened awareness that elevates your consciousness. Any expression of art, be it a Rembrandt or your own garden, reflects the best of humankind, and tapping into this wonder expands your creative capacity so you may in turn create even more art – more awareness, more inspiration, more aliveness. The cycle feeds itself, but only if you stop to smell those literal and proverbial roses.” (boldface is mine)

Fran includes some excellent gardening guidance and tips, but her book is not a gardening manual. Rather, her aim is impart a deeper wisdom, a kind of spiritual instruction about connection to soil and nature, to foster creative awakening.

Gardens of Use and Delight book coverJigs and Jo Ann Gardner’s Gardens of Use and Delight is about a remarkable couple who for thirty years taught themselves how to live off the land on a farm on remote, hardscrabble Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. (They now live on a smaller farm in upstate New York.) I wanted to pair it with Digging Deep because, although Jigs and Jo Ann are immensely practical people, they are deeply connected to their land and passionate about homesteading, which they portray as at once the functional task of reawakening fertility and abundance in the landscape and making it beautiful as well. The subtitle is Uniting the Practical and the Beautiful in an Integrated Landscape, and that is exactly what Jigs and Jo Ann did on their isolated farm, while also raising four children (and a few foster children for good measure.)

Gardens of Use and Delight, like Digging Deep, is part memoir. More of a how-to book than Fran’s, Gardens, for me, stands out because of Jigs and Jo Ann’s instinctively creative approach to seamlessly blending beauty and fertility as they rejuvenate and work their land. I will never rehabilitate an entire farm as they did, but in Jigs and Jo Ann’s book I find an approach to making my much smaller landscape both productive and beautiful. Jigs and Jo Ann remind me of Helen and Scott Nearing and their classic and influential The Good Life, although Helen and Scott were not concerned with aesthetics as are Jigs and Jo Ann. The Gardners view their land as an artist does a blank canvas, to be molded and planted with flowers, herbs, vegetables, fruits, shrubs, and trees.

You’ll find some recipes and homemade craft instructions, too, such as pressed flower cards, candied petals, herb salt, rose petal jelly, and skin freshener. Elayne Sears’ watercolor illustrations of the landscape, fruits, vegetables, flowers, and Jo Ann’s rustic farm kitchen and pantry are delightful – I’d love to have prints of them to hang in my kitchen.

I have read other titles by Jo Ann Gardner and hope to collect everything written by this talented, tenacious homesteading and gardening virtuoso.

A very vintage photo of Cape Breton Island, from my honeymoon. Although I don't believe they were on the coast, Jigs and Jo Ann Snyder must have encountered land much like this when began to reclaim an old Nova Scotia farm.

A very vintage photo of Cape Breton Island, from my honeymoon. Although I don’t believe they were on the coast, Jigs and Jo Ann Gardner must have encountered land much like this when they began to reclaim an old Nova Scotia farm.

 

Slow Flowers Challenge

I wanted to also tell you about Debra Prinzing’s Slow Flower Challenge for 2015, which you can join at any time. Every day, once a week, once a month, or once a season, you can design and make a floral arrangement using slow flowers. If you don’t know what slow flowers are, click on the above link, or read my post about Debra’s book, Slow Flowers. (St. Lynn’s Press)

Raised beds covered with snow

Our blank slate

 

 Next up

More WW II fiction, a travel-to-the-ends-of-the-earth memoir, a wolf, Scandinavian literature, Little Golden Books, a favorite author visits Rome. Etc. Etc.

 

Books from Around the World, Under Our Tree

The Narrow Road to the Deep North Book CoverThe Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. This World War II novel about an Australian surgeon in a Japanese POW camp won the 2014 Man Booker Prize.  (The purpose of this UK prize is to bring quality fiction to intelligent general readers who might otherwise not hear about the work.) The prisoners helped build what became known as the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. The Narrow Road to the Deep North book cover The books is named after one of the most famous books in Japanese literature, written by the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. I plan to read the books together. I’ll let you know how that works out.

 

 

 

 

A Platter of Figs cookbook coverA Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, by David Tanis I like this cookbook because it’s about eating with the seasons, and it features uncomplicated family meals you can easily make at home. Sections include “How to Cook a Rabbit,” “Feeling Italian,” “Nuevo Mexico,” “Peasant from a Parisian Kitchen,” and “Hot Day, Cold Chicken.” David Tanis is the head chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley six months of the year; the other six months he lives in Paris, where he prepares meals in a tiny galley kitchen for his private dining club. I will read any cookbook affiliated with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. My son bought this book at Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers in Williamsburg.

 

                                                                                                                                                        

Cereal magazine coverCereal: Travel & Lifestyle Magazine, Vol. 8 Click on this link right now and visit Cereal, a stunningly photographed and designed magazine and online journal. This volume features, among other things, a section on Yukon, Canada with spreads on Kluane National Park & Reserve and the Demptster Highway which leads to the Arctic Circle. (Someone in the family has been to the Arctic Circle via the Dalton Highway.) This mag’s style and visual aesthetic reminded me of a cookbook and lifestyle book I received last Christmas, The Kinfolk Table: Recipes for Small Gatherings. (Kinfolk is a magazine, too.) So I got out the book and saw there are a couple of recipes and a profile of food writer Rosa Park, who happens to be the editor of Cereal. Both Cereal and Kinfolk are beautifully designed and photographed, wonderful for browsing.

 

 

Southern Light: Images of Antarctica book coverSouthern Light: Images from Antarctica, by David Neilson. Someone in our family dreams of visiting Antarctica.  This is a luscious collection of black and white and color photos, including several gatefolds that open up to three panels of photos on each side. At least seven kinds of penguins, all the major mountain ranges, Deception and Elephant Islands, historic exploration sites, and essays on climate change, too. Our son bought this book at Strand Books in New York. (“Come for the books and stay for the synth musik.”)

 

 

RHS Vegetables for the Gourmet Gardener book cover

RHS Vegetables for the Gourmet Gardener, by Simon Akeroyd. To feed my gardening habit and enrich my gardening and nature writing. RHS stands for Royal Horticultural Society, the UK’s leading gardening charity. This beautiful book was designed and produced by Quid Publishing in England, the same publisher that produced another volume I own, RHS Latin for Gardeners.

Our son purchased this at Daunt Books for Travellers in London. On the bookmark tucked inside:  “The heart of Daunt Books is an original Edwardian bookshop with long oak galleries and graceful skylights. Its soul is the unique arrangement of books by country – where guides, novels, and nonfiction of all kinds will interest traveller and browser alike.” If I ever get to London this shop will be on my bookstore list.

 

 

Four Seasons in Rome book coverFour Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, by Anthony Doerr. If you read my blog, you know I’ve been wild about Anthony Doerr lately. His novel, All the Light We Cannot See, was a National Book Award finalist and has become a bestseller. He happened to visit Rome when Pope John Paul II was dying and attended the vigil. I can’t wait to see Doerr’s take on this fabulous city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gorgeous Nothings book coverEmily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, by Marta Werner, a scholar of poetry, and Jen Bervin, a visual artist. No other book is quite like this one – a work of art, a facsimile publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems as she wrote them on fifty-two envelopes. These artifacts let the reader see Emily’s original line breaks and words spread across the entire space of a page, together with variant word lists that are meant to be part of the texts themselves. Reading these poems in their original medium, as opposed to in a traditional typeset book, is an entirely different experience.

 

 

 

My Struggle book coverMy Struggle, Book Three, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. My son has read the first two autobiographical novels in the hugely popular series (there are to be six!) by the Norwegian author, published in 22 languages. I hope to tackle the first two volumes myself this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Berlin Wonderland book coverBerlin Wonderland: Wild Years Revisited 1990 – 1996 Amazing photos by seven photographers documenting the wild, artistic subculture that bloomed after the Berlin Wall came down. One of our sons is studying in Germany and bought this at Hundt Hammerstein in Berlin, a gift for the photographer in our family. The text is in English and German.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manage Your Day to Day book coverManage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, edited by Jocelyn K. Glei. This is a great little book about how to meet creative goals and fulfill your calling rather than spend your days reacting to the demands of social media and new technology – a huge issue creative souls in the past did not have to deal with. Creative work, in the context of this book, can be anything from painting to starting a business to launching a volunteer effort or charity drive.

These very short articles by creatives and thought leaders like Seth Godin and Gretchen Rubin are practical and full of wisdom. I love this tiny red and black book and decided to pass it on to my photographer son (the industrial designer has browsed through it, too.) The most important take-away for me: disconnect from the Internet and get creative work done first thing, NO MATTER WHAT. Produced by Behance, which “is on a mission to empower the creative world.”   (See: http://www.99u.com; http://www.behance.com)

 

 

Blue Dawn

Birds on branches in snow

“Christmas Eve he drove all the way to Helena to buy her figure skates. In the morning they wrapped themselves head to toe in furs and went out to skate the river. She held him by the hips and they glided through the blue dawn, skating hard up the frozen coils and shoals, beneath the leafless alders and cottonwoods, only the bare tips of creek willow showing above the snow.” “The Hunter’s Wife,” from The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr.

Photo by Putneypics. CC By-NC 2.0

Redeployment

Redeployment book cover

“Your wife takes you shopping in Wilmington. Last time you walked down a city street, your Marine on point went down the side of the road, checking ahead and scanning the roofs across from him. The Marine behind him checks the windows on the top levels of the buildings, the Marine behind him gets the windows a little lower, and so on down until your guys have the street level covered, and the Marine in back has the rear…

In Wilmington you don’t have a squad, you don’t have a battle buddy, you don’t even have a weapon. You startle ten times checking for it and it’s not there. You’re safe, so your alertness should be at white, but it’s not. 

Instead, you’re stuck in an American Eagle Outfitters. Your wife gives you some clothes to try on and you walk into the tiny dressing room. You close the door, and you don’t want to open it again.”      Redeployment, by Phil Klay

 

Redeployment, Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, won this year’s National Book Award. It’s been hailed as THE literary work that captures the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, destined to become a classic of war literature.

Klay served during the Surge as a public affairs officer in Anbar (Iraq), which has now been infiltrated by ISIS. All the stories in this collection are written from the first person point of view: a military chaplain, a Mortuary Affairs officer, a Marine home on leave, and others because, as Klay said in an interview, each person has a different experience of war. He wanted to capture those varied perspectives.

If you read Redeployment, you’ll encounter stark realism, much profanity, and a bewildering array of acronyms: SITREP (Situation Report), RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade), CASEVAC (Casualty Evacuation), EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), UXO (Unexploded Ordnance).  There is no glossary, of course. Reading along without knowing what the acronyms mean has a confusing and disorienting effect that adds to the sense of overwhelming fear and danger.

Klay is a master at conveying situation and character through dialogue and idiosyncratic points of view. These soldiers are strangers in an utterly baffling land. They return home as aliens, isolated and unable to relate to “normal” American life. They are ciphers to an American public tragically disengaged from the war being conducted by their own country. I, myself, do not know a single Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran.

There have been a number of interesting interviews with Klay, especially since he won the National Book Award. An NPR interview by Terry Gross is one of my favorites. Terry is adept at asking the hard questions, and Phil Klay is an intense, thoughtful man, a Catholic who attended Jesuit schools. He does not come out in favor of or against the wars, although it’s clear he does not like incompetent leaders or clueless, insensitive civilians.  As any good writer does, he lets character and situation tell the stories, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

In one interview, Klay says that when he returned from Iraq he ran into a friend who said she couldn’t possibly imagine what he’d been through. That did not sit well with Klay. He in fact wanted very much for his friends and American civilians to imagine and understand, which is one of the reasons he wrote the stories.

Klay has also said that asking veterans if they ever killed someone is “the most obscene question you can ask.”

After reading (surviving!) Redeployment, I feel as though saying “Thank you for your service” to military personnel I might encounter would be incredibly lame. I’m not sure I could come up with the right words to show I have even a semblance of an understanding and thatI want to understand more.

Redeployment is not comfortable or comforting reading, but necessary if we civilians want to pay attention.

Prayer of a military chaplain in Iraq:  “I asked God to protect the battalion from further harm. I knew He would not. I asked Him to bring abuses to light. I knew He would not. I asked him, finally, for grace. When I turned back to the Divine Office, I read the words with empty disengagement.”    from “Prayer in the Furnace,” Redeployment

 

The Hunter’s Wife

Northern Lights and trees

“That night he drove her all the way north to Sweetgrass, on the Canadian border, to see the Northern Lights. Great sheets of violet, amber and pale green rose from the distances. Shapes like the head of a falcon, a scarf and a wing rippled above the mountains. They sat in the truck cab, the heater blowing on their knees. Behind the aurora the Milky Way burned.”     “The Hunter’s Wife,” by Anthony Doerr

I liked All the Light We Cannot See so much, I got a copy of Anthony Doerr’s short story collection, The Shell Collector, and read “The Hunter’s Wife” (astonishing) while I had tea at Wegman’s today. One reviewer said about this collection: “Eight stunning exercises in steel-tipped feathery fineness….[Doerr is] able to pin down every butterfly wing and fleck of matter in the universe, yet willing to float the unanswerables….”

The snow was really coming down this afternoon. I watched people buying groceries for the evening’s dinner, rushing about and remarking on the weather, telling each other to drive safely. I bought some juniper boughs, white button mums, a ruby-red poinsettia. (And a meat loaf for supper.) The snow was still falling when I left. I swept about four inches’ worth off my car.

White mums, berries, snowman, pine cone

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 297 other followers

%d bloggers like this: