Posts Tagged ‘booknotes’
I set this afternoon aside for reading, a whole glorious seven hours of it, and reading always makes me want to write. So here I am, blowing the dust off this dear old blog. I neglect it for weeks at a stretch because I spend so much of my day writing other things, and when I open this tab I often feel drained or blank.
There’s also an aspect of blogging that feels like homework—combing my photos for the right image, choosing tags, looking up books on Bookshop.org or Amazon to add links, the kind that send a few cents my way, defraying the costs of maintaining the site. Chores I find tedious and sometimes embarrassing. The book links aren’t as necessary as I tell myself they are—you can Google anything that catches your interest—but money’s as tight for us as it is for most everyone else right now, and omitting the links always feels, in the end, a bit irresponsible. Even now I’m staring at the word Bookshop up there, feeling internal pressure to stick my affiliate link in place like a sensible blogger.
But this is my magic week, when I don’t have to be sensible. I try to reserve the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day for combing through the year’s notebooks, revisiting, panning for gold. It’s mostly iron pyrite so far, but that’s often useful in its own way. I gave yesterday afternoon to a single notebook, distilled now to a page of notes and asterisks. Today, as I mentioned, was hours and hours of reading other people’s work. Twyla Tharp’s Keep It Moving, a packet of poems, a Mary Oliver essay that cut me to the quick. Lordy, I love her. Both of them. Twyla shakes you by the shoulders and Mary raises her eyebrows at you until you cry uncle. You’re right, I’m constantly shouting back, of course you’re right! I’ll go for a walk! I’ll try to enter the long black branches of other lives! More birds, less Twitter!
The line that made me gasp tonight—it was like an adrenaline syringe to the heart—was in her essay “Of Power and Time”:
In creative work—creative work of all kinds—those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.
She writes about her three selves—the child she was, who exists now in remembered experiences; the “attentive, social” self who makes dentist appointments and remembers to buy mustard; and a third self, “occasional in some of us, a tyrant in others.” A self “out of love with time,” a self that “has a hunger for eternity.”
The shock of recognition was severe. These past several months, my capable, responsible second self has—out of necessity—run the show. I’m a bit sick of her, to be honest. My third self, more tired than tyrannical in this bizarrest of years, is stretching her limbs and wondering when the prime minister took over running the kingdom.
I’m being a little unfair to the second self: someone had to get the FAFSA done and the health insurance renewed, and it certainly wasn’t going to be the poet queen. Mary Oliver’s delight was in lying down in the grass, as though she were the grass. My delight has been in showing the grass to my children and teaching them how to find its secret name. We walk in different fields, is what I’m saying.
But. Sometimes the second self tumbles or leaps into the whirlpool of distractions—most of them connected to the internet—and promises the third self her turn will come “as soon as.” As soon as the election is over, as soon as this assignment is turned in, as soon as the bathroom floor is mopped. The as-soon-as train has an infinite number of cars.
Twyla Tharp would say: you must make a pledge to the third self. Promise her time on the throne. Mary Oliver says to put your foot into the door of the grass and to sit down like a weed among weeds and rustle in the wind!
Every day, I get up before dark to give the third self a little time in the chair. I’m dedicated to this practice and it bears fruit on a long, slow timeline. But here at the end of an infuriating, stupefying year, those morning hours already feel like a distant memory by the time breakfast is over. The poet queen refuses to compete with Twitter. She won’t come back until all the tabs are closed. That’s Mary Oliver’s point.
“It is six a.m.,” she writes, “and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be.”
This last week of the year, I invite the third self to occupy the chair not just in the dawn hours but for a string of entire days. The second self can go jump in a lake, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, jump! urges Twyla—there is literally a chapter about jumping in Keep It Moving, in which she recommends four different kinds of leaps you ought to fold into your day. Beside her, Mary is calling: Fall in, fall in!
Astonished, I watch people in other states flocking back to crowded rooms and long queues. I shudder to imagine the steep rise we’re bound to see on the charts in the coming weeks. We don’t have widespread testing or contact tracing in place. Hospitals are still desperately short on PPE. An entire TV news/entertainment network goes on blithely lying to its viewers, putting so many of them in danger. The President of the United States is a feckless narcissist who cares more about his own ratings (ratings!) than the staggering numbers of dead and dying Americans.
My feelings about all of this have made it more than a little hard to write posts here. The staggering misinformation campaign that’s costing so many lives—and putting ours at risk, and people I love. The horror of knowing breastfeeding mothers are being separated from their babies (perhaps forever) or having to endure crowded detainment facilities where the virus is spreading, spreading. The sickening cruelty perpetrated by the current administration. The underpaid, underprotected “essential workers” who bag our groceries and tend our elderly. I’m so angry and feel helpless to fix it. All I can do is keep calling my electeds, who are already fighting the good fight.
Our home life is fine, lovely even. Jane is working fulltime from home, Rose has a part-time job and another one lined up (pending reopening), and is due to start classes at PSU in the fall. Online, probably? Derailing her dorm plans, of course. Beanie is finishing up this quarter’s classes at PCC. Wonderboy has been doing school from home since March 12—the day our whole family began cloistering. I’ve been nowhere except the doctor’s office (for a torn tendon in my hand) since then. I haven’t minded much? I fervently miss Low Bar Chorale and my weekly ramen/OMSI dates. I miss working in coffee shops. But my work has been uninterrupted by the pandemic, and my garden is a mellow and happy place, and I’m playing lots of Animal Crossing with my kids (their recent gift to me!), which is a delight.
Not reading as much as I’d like—or maybe I’m reading more than I give myself credit for? I wrote on my Patreon yesterday about how much I’m enjoying Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, and I’m getting a ton out of B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits as well. I’m reading a new Arrow selection to the kids—can’t say what, since the big reveal doesn’t happen until May 28—and we’re all pretty darn glued to it. What I’m missing is some juicy and captivating adult fiction: I haven’t looked for anything lately. Hundreds of options in this house and on my Kindle. That immense ever-growing list of novels I specifically want to read—but I can’t settle on one. My mind is restless and veers away. Poetry works: I’ve read Olav Hauge’s The Dream We Carry almost to tatters.
I might be in the mood for another Riddlemaster reread.
My wretched hand is much, much better (but I still have to be careful when picking things up. I have dropped so many things!) and my nose is almost back to its old shape. I certainly picked a good time for significant facial surgery, I suppose! I’m so grateful the surgery was in the rear-view when the shutdown began.
In bloom: rhodendrons, gloriously. One poppy was unfurling in my back garden this morning—I need to go see if it’s awake! And roses, oh I’m swooning over the roses I inherited from my neighbor last fall—eleven large potted rosebushes, every color.
The peas are nearly ready, and blueberries and strawberries are coming. I don’t have tomatoes yet. There’s curbside pickup at the garden shop; I should look at their order sheet. Our salad greens are just about done—I only planted one round. Still lots of time for more.
Last week I finished a rather big stitching project—a test stitch of an upcoming sampler by one of my favorite embroidery designers, who plans to use it in her next Creativebug class. Whenever that may be! She’d been due to film in mid-April but of course that changed. I loved stitching the sampler and comparing notes with the other three test stitchers. I was mighty chuffed to be asked, I must say!
Now that that’s done, I’m back at work on, oh, four or five other hoops. Including my own secret project (not so secret since I have talked about it on Patreon). Writing about them makes me want to close this tab and get stitching. I’ve got a pile of work waiting for me this afternoon, though.
Work is…really hard, under these circumstances. Staying focused, staying connected, staying sharp. If I read one more post urging us to slow down, take naps, allow more white space in our days, I might scream. Our grocery store workers and hospital personnel don’t get to slow down—they’ve been soldiering on day after day without hazard pay, reusing masks that were never meant for weeks of wear. And for those of us who are fortunate to be working from home, the work is much harder and more intense because of these circumstances. The effort of concentrating is exhausting. The long hours of work are necessary. I’m still paying off breast cancer, and skin cancer set us back another two grand. Boy do I know how to have fun with money or what?
Oregon is moving more cautiously than many states, for which I’m grateful. A slow rollout of Phase One reopenings will happen in rural counties soonish, but not in Portland for a while. I suspect the inevitable spike in cases in other more recklessly reopening states will slow Oregon’s plans as well, and without a robust test-and-trace program I can’t imagine my family (with some particularly high-risk members) will feel able to risk crowd situations until there’s a vaccine in place.
So. Every day I take some time to catch up, to stay informed about what’s happening beyond my home, good and bad. And then I make a list of things that are lovely. A nuthatch at the suet feeder. Rilla’s oat bars cooling on the counter. My vigorous, adorable sourdough starter. The masks my friend Ramona sent. My friend Ben leading hundreds of solitary singers in virtual singalongs every Tuesday evening. The sound of the M*A*S*H opening credits drifting down the hall in the afternoons—Scott is watching with the kids. For me, that’s the theme song of this pandemic.
Oh my friends! I hope you’re staying home, and staying well.
Ha, joke’s on me! I wrote this post yesterday morning and left it sitting in drafts, awaiting photos. Went out to putter in the garden and took a spill jumping from the raised bed (I mean it’s not that high, just a step). Smashed flat on the patio. Thumb and wrist now killing me and elbow is pretty ouchy. But nothing broken, I’m reasonably sure. Just sprained, I think? And bruised? And basically furious at me for forgetting I’m not a gazelle?
We scrummaged up an Ace bandage from the first-aid kit and wrapped the hand overnight. I’m not keen on paying a visit to urgent care this weekend, GEE I WONDER WHY, so I’m just keeping it wrapped and we’ll see how I do. Can type for brief periods before my thumb starts to yell but I’m not doing much. Reading. Walking around my garden, longing to dig. Fortunately, the injured hand is my left and I’m righthanded. I might even be able to embroider if I use the hoop stand. Hooray for hoop stands! Okay, no more exclamation points. They’re the ones that hurt my thumb.
(Who even AM I without exclamation points??)
Anyway, on to yesterday’s plague journal. 😉
Things that happened this week:
• I finally planted the veggie starts I bought a couple of days before we went into isolation. (We isolated a bit earlier than the rest of Portland due to some high-risk family members.)
• I repotted a whole bunch of houseplants
• and cleaned the garage
• I got a tower of review books from a (beloved) publisher who, despite nearly three years of dogged efforts to get them to update my mailing address in their system, continues sending packages to our San Diego address. UPS saved up NINE BOXES and redirected them to Portland all at once. Yes, the delivery guy thinks I’ve lost my mind. He’s not far off.
I’ll be sharing these with young friends after I read/review them
• I swapped out the regular suet feeder for the squirrel-proof one (rediscovered during the garage cleanout) because the starlings kept wiping us out, leaving nothing for the bush tits and chickadees. However, the down side of the cage feeder is that the downy woodpeckers and flickers will be as stymied as the starlings. Either way, we only have a few suet cakes left. Our favorite retailer does have curbside pickup during the quarantine, but given the state of things, suet might not make it into next month’s budget.
Bush tits at the old feeder, before the starlings moved in. They’re tiny and travel in a flock of forty or so.
*Sunday update: we spotted a Northern flicker at the feeder this morning! Its beak is long enough to reach the suet through the cage. Not so for the starlings. This may be a solution! Waiting for the bush tits to return. Meanwhile, we had an absolutely new-to-us bird at the feeder just now. Still trying to id. Finch size, blue-gray back (more blue than gray), yellow belly, and the tip of its tail looks like it was dipped in white paint. A warbler of some kind? Photo coming–we got one goodish snap–but transferring the memory card from camera to laptop is beyond my poor hand’s ability right now. As are em dashes. Had to go with double hyphens. This may be the end of me.
• I taught the final week of my Comic Strip Capers class at Brave Writer. I get a week in between and then I’ll start a new session on the 30th. These kids, their comics—such a delight. (My class is sold out but Brave Writer does have openings in other fun courses if you’re looking.)
• I also continued my work on Brave Writer Arrow literature guides. I’m both revising/expanding older guides and writing new ones for the current year’s subscription. I recently finished the Arrow for Bronze and Sunflower, a beautiful tapestry of a book by Chinese author Cao Wenxuan, translated by Helen Wang. The literature guide was challenging to write but oh, so worth it! I’ve walked around for weeks pondering this gem of a novel, turning its poignant scenes and lush imagery over in my mind. I think now that my work on it is done, I might reread it (or read it aloud to the kids?) just for pleasure.
• I worked on a secret stitching project that is different from my OTHER secret stitching project—this one a test stitch of a new sampler for a favorite instructor’s upcoming Creativebug class. Originally I was supposed to finish it by mid-April, but now the class taping is postponed like everything else on the planet. It’s a gorgeous sampler and I’m having a wonderful time with it.
• I did some prep work for my Prairie Thief readaloud sessions in next week’s (free! online!) Homebound conference. (You can register for my sessions here. The schedule and other session links are here.)
• I went on a few walks in the quiet neighborhood, nodding at neighbors from a prudent distance or chatting from the sidewalk. Our streets are empty but I’m noticing that porches are full. So many more neighbors sitting out front in the evenings.
• Huck is crushed that he can’t play with friends, but at least his very best pal doesn’t have to be kept at a distance. Our next-door neighbor, for whom Huck & Rilla have a standing weekday dogwalking gig, is working at home for now and is therefore walking her mini Schnauzer herself, but several times a day Huck and Barkleigh meet up in the backyard for some buddy time.
I took this photo through the fence. Only one of them noticed.
• I completely failed at playing a game of Ticket to Ride with Huck. I tried, I really did! Couldn’t focus. Got so squirrely between turns, my mind racing. You’d have thought I was the eleven-year-old child, not the mom.
• I laughed over this memory that popped on Facebook from 2013:
So the 4yo is standing beside me and asks, “Are you Mommy?”
“What?” I say, confused.
“Are you MOMMY?”
I’m laughing, thinking he must be playing a game. “Yes, I‘m Mommy.”
He points across the yard at his 17yo sister, nods to himself.
“OK, so that one is Jane.”
• I put in some more work on my rebooted newsletter which I am trying very hard to get out this weekend!* You can sign up here.
*Laughing somewhat hysterically. Obviously that was written before yesterday’s tumble!
September 20, 2018 @ 8:34 am | Filed under: Books
I’m reading Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s A+++ book about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, and I quipped on Facebook that so far a chief takeaway for me is: One should never achieve a level of fame that inspires historians to go through one’s personal correspondence. 😉
That post has generated a good discussion of Fraser’s book, and in answering some friends’ questions I wound up writing a whole tome, which I thought I might as well share here.
S. mentioned, “I didn’t realize there was so much new material in it!”
I replied: re new material, you might be thinking of Pioneer Girl, which is Laura’s original memoir, a manuscript written long before the Little House books. I was given a copy back in the 90s when Harper commissioned me to write the Martha books. It was published for the first time last year in a wonderful edition annotated by Pamela Smith Hill. It’s a much bleaker narrative, telling many chapters of the story that Laura left out of the children’s series (death of her brother Freddy, the awful Burr Oak Iowa years, etc). I haven’t reread it in many years but at the time I loved getting a peek behind the curtain to the more raw, adult memoir and learning what happened in some of the gaps in the series, and what kinds of changes she made to the narrative thread when she reworked the material into children’s novels.
Prairie Fires is a stunningly thorough nonfiction book by Caroline Fraser which maps out the life stories of Laura, her parents, Almanzo, and Rose. It’s impeccably researched, drawing heavily on Rose and Laura’s personal correspondence, Rose’s diaries, their many published writings in various periodicals as well as their books, land records, local archives, etc. The depth of Fraser’s research is impressive and makes this historical fiction writer’s heart go pitty-pat.
In this account, Laura comes off better than Rose, but Fraser doesn’t shy away from discussing Laura’s flaws and quirks. Not a problem for me, since LIW was demystified and humanized for me a long time ago. As a look behind the curtain at writing process, Prairie Fires is fascinating and hugely valuable. I’ve loved watching the interplay between Laura and Rose (and occasionally Laura’s editors) that helped shape the Little House books. I think Fraser does a much better job of unpacking the complicated writing/editorial relationship between the two women than Holtz’s Ghost in the Little House.
I do wonder sometimes if Fraser’s educated guesses (and they are HIGHLY educated and thoroughly considered, don’t get me wrong) are a tiny bit presumptuous—she does make some assumptions about motivations and personal emotions. But she always makes it clear that those statements are suppositions. “Laura may have felt…” etc.
In response to J.’s question, “do I dare to read it?”: If Laura is on any kind of pedestal in your mind, this book probably knocks it out from under her. But for me it’s been marvelous–a look at the real Laura, the woman, the often struggling writer doubting her abilities and deferring to her daughter’s judgment–then bristling back and defending certain authorial choices, digging in when she felt strongly about a scene. As a writer of historical fiction I am just EATING UP the conversations about how to mold *truth* and *fact* into a compelling fiction narrative.
[Side note: I was really stunned to encounter a speech in which Laura talks about how she tells the truth ***but not the whole truth*** because that’s what I have said myself many times these past 13 years about my blog (everything I share is true, but I don’t share everything) and of course it served as a major theme in The Prairie Thief. “Not the Whole Truth” was in fact my working title for that book! (Nixed by my publisher as not kid-friendly/gripping enough. Prairie Thief was their title but it gave me serious angst since I wanted the book to stand apart from my Little House work.]
I had already been aware that Laura rearranged some of her family’s travels and left whole huge chapters out of the series. Fraser’s book delves into precisely why those changes occurred. Excellent insight for any student of fiction and memoir.
S., re how Laura’s books are doing these days…well, the past twenty years have been a time of growing awareness of the highly problematic areas of her books. Her family’s story goes hand in hand with the story of Native Americans being cruelly displaced from their lands. Fraser takes an unflinching look at that history, as well as the ways in which Laura’s pervasive message of rugged individualism breezes past the many times her family received government or community assistance of various kinds. (Not to mention the Ingalls family skipping town when Burr Oak debts mounted up.)
My understanding is that sales of Laura’s books have declined somewhat over the past fifteen years but they still remain staples. Personally, I think contemporary children are less engaged by the long, detailed *process* descriptions (making bullets, making a door, etc)–why read a step-by-step when you can watch it on Youtube, you know? (I’m not being disparaging–I freely admit I too would rather watch a video of a door being made than read a blow-by-blow narrative. But not sausage. I don’t want to watch a sausage-making video. Give me Laura’s narrative anytime.) And of course Harry Potter swept in a great wave of interest in children’s fantasy. Historicals were on the downswing for a bit but have bounded back up now with many brilliant own-voices works.
The reality is that Laura’s books require discussion. When my own kids came along I realized I was hesitant to just hand the books over–I felt like conversation and contextualizing was necessary because of the treatment of Indians, the minstrel show, etc. Today I would add: the climate disruptions also invite what Julie Bogart calls Big Juicy Questions. Not to mention the politics (for older readers)…
Laura’s work is certainly in no danger of being forgotten—she’ll always be a pivotal figure in children’s literature. But the field is rich and crowded now. The glorious explosion of kids’ graphic novels, the brilliant prose of contemporary authors—there’s an overwhelming abundance of books competing with Laura’s now. Not to mention all the visual media. Much of her prose is what would now be called “quiet”—I say this as a passionate lover of “quiet books” — in a market that prefers action and zip. All of which is to say that I think there are many reasons why contemporary kids aren’t embracing Little House with quite the fervor we did (and for our generation it’s probably impossible to gauge how much our zeal was spurred by the TV show—I honestly don’t remember which way I encountered Little House first! But I do know that Nellie Oleson always had Alison Arngrim’s face in my mind. I would guess I encountered book and show more or less concurrently).
Probably more to come when I’ve finished the Fraser book. Closing in on the finish now…heart in my throat.
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(I wrote much of this last week, didn’t post it, and then the air quality improved. I went on an hour-long ramble yesterday evening and it felt marvelous. But today: hazy skies and burning throats again.)
The air quality is terrible here in Portland this week: fires in so many directions. We’re stuck indoors and there is a lot of bouncing off the walls going on. Quite literally, in Huck’s case. But all of us, really! I miss my walks. I’m an addict now, that’s become clear. Morning nature walk with the kids; long evening ramble on my own or with Scott or both. How many blossoms are opening and closing while I’m closeted in the cool house, breathing the filtered air?
It’s only been a few days. I’ll survive. 😉 The fires—far away from us but so fierce we’re inhaling them across the miles—the weeks of dry season still ahead. The warming planet, the denialism—the campaign against reality being waged with fearful success in certain quarters. These things are much more concerning than my missed nature walks.
I think sometimes about our friend Tracy, the hospital social worker, telling me all those years ago when Jane was beginning chemo that some parents of patients are ‘monitors’ and some are ‘blockers.’ Monitors feel less anxious when they have lots of information. Blockers feel more anxious by information overload and prefer to leave the in-the-weeds details to the experts. (I was told I’m the most monitory monitor they ever met. This because I was begging—in those pre-Wifi days—medical textbooks so I could fully understand about pluripotent stem cells and what was happening in my baby’s bone marrow.) This distinction wasn’t a value judgment; it was meant to help terrified parents cope with the ordeal: a child with cancer. An awareness of what relieves or inflames your anxiety is powerful knowledge. But I’ve come to believe that being a blocker is only safe if you can utterly trust the experts in question. And the voices who turned climate change into a political issue—framing it as politics instead of a set of facts supported by abundant data—those voices are not trustworthy. We’ve all got to become monitors now.
Oof. Do you know I thought I was coming here to write about sourdough starter? That’s one of the ways we entertained ourselves indoors this morning: we got a starter going two weeks ago, and today* we tested it out on a batch of pancakes. (Too hot to bake bread.) The pancakes were delicious; the starter is strong. Rilla handles most of the care and feeding (and she keeps a log book with daily updates about status and hydration level), and Huck flipped all the pancakes. And Jane…got on a plane and went back to California to start her new job. (Sniffle. No, I’m excited for her, truly!)
*Last Wednesday, that was. From here on is new today, Monday.
Since I can’t spend much time in the garden, I’m obsessing over my houseplants, and they have rewarded me with surprising blooms.
Nearly a year after I bought it, my Aeschynanthus is blooming and I’m over the moon. I used to grow these beauties (commonly called lipstick flower) by the half dozen back in pre-baby days, along with Nematanthus and other gems. We left nearly all our plants behind when we moved to Portland last summer, but a few months after our arrival Scott and I were en route to buy a card table (for jigsaw puzzles) from a Craigslist seller and we passed a Very Large Sign emblazoned with one of the nicest phrases in the English language: PLANT SALE. Of course I had to pop in *just for a look*. It turned out to be the annual sale of the PDX chapter of the Gesneriad Society—an organization I belonged to myself, back in the day. (Some of you longtime readers may recall a post I wrote about that chapter of my life ages ago.) Anyway, I spent five dollars at that plant sale last summer and have been enjoying the trailing foliage of my Aeschynanthus and Nematanthus all year. That five bucks also bought me a Streptocarpus (Cape Primrose), whose pink blossoms made me giddy…while they lasted. I never could keep a Streptocarpus alive.
It was clear the Aeschynanthus was happy with its spot near the east-facing window of my studio—gorgeous, abundant foliage—but no blooms. Until HELLO, suddenly it’s a Revlon commercial in that corner. These flowers are bonkers. And it’s bursting with them. Talk about a makeover!
And then! And then! The very same day I lamented on Instagram that I missed my old goldfish flower (the aforementioned Nematanthus)—we met friends for a drink in the evening, and there was a small nursery next to the alehouse, and GUESS WHAT I FOUND. A bitty little $2.50 goldfish flower in full bloom. Of course I had to adopt it.
What I’m reading:
My Mary Stewart kick continues. Over the weekend I reread Thornyhold (far and away my favorite of her books so far) and Rose Cottage (second fave), and now I’m a couple of chapters into Thunder on the Right (bit of a slow start, but picking up). Many of her books can be had for $1.99 on Kindle at the moment, including Touch Not the Cat (I loved this one), The Ivy Tree (suspenseful, moody), and Madam, Will You Talk?
This Rough Magic is an extra dollar, but it’s Tempest-inspired! Probably #3 in my rankings so far, but I have several other novels to go. Including The Moon-Spinners—remember the Hayley Mills film?
August 10, 2018 @ 8:38 pm | Filed under: Books
Here’s the sequence: I’m lying on the bed reading the opening chapter of a library book on my phone. I don’t know why I’m doing this: I’m several chapters into Deep Work, about which I’ve just talked Scott’s ear off for an hour or more during dinner and, afterward, our walk; and I’ve got another Mary Stewart novel on the Kindle, which I know I’ll find totally absorbing as soon as I settle into it properly. And here beside me on the bed: A Tale of Time City and Elizabeth and Her German Garden, both of which I read, oh golly, back in the ’90s I guess it would have been. (Or more precisely, Time City was read to me by Scott, one of the books we enjoyed aloud together when Jane was a newborn. I nursed, he read.) I grabbed them on my way into the room, for no particular reason. I’m hungry for something, pacing a mental library like a caged tiger, wanting a contrast to the sobering, change-demanding Deep Work.
And so here I am ignoring the books already in progress or gathered on my way to this quiet corner. I got up at six this morning and was in my chair, writing, by 6:10. I haven’t stopped since, unless the walk counts as down time. (It does.) Now the rest of the family is watching Superman and I have an hour free, an hour to spend reading. I ache to read. I think about it all day long: how I can’t wait until evening is here and I can read.
But then I don’t. I work on tomorrow’s NYT crossword puzzle, which hits my phone at 7pm. Get about halfway through before flicking away. Instagram, but only for a moment. I want to read. Why am I not reading?
I remember that a Penelope Lively book I’d requested hit my Overdrive account today. I tap open the Libby app (though I’m not clear on why I’m now using Libby for Overdrive; the library website nudged me in that direction but didn’t explain why) and there it is: Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir. I’m going to relish it; this I know from the cover, the brief description. Below this new arrival, there’s the audiobook of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, a big chunk of which I listened to last Sunday while doing some handwork—and then in the rush of the work-week, forgot all about. I was enjoying it quite a lot, and the audio version is wonderful: a delicious array of voices.
Below that, the Mary Poppins audiobook—that’s my next Brave Writer Arrow title, I just turned in Redwall today, and in late afternoon I decided to get a jump on this next assignment. I looked all over the house for our copy of Poppins; I know it’s here somewhere; it’s nowhere to be seen. Thus the audio, which I’d downloaded last week in anticipation, and spent some time with before dinner this evening. This is suddenly adding up to be a lot of books in progress (let’s not mention The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, which I’m reading to the kids but didn’t today). And below Mary Poppins on the Libby screen, yet another book I put on hold (not audio this time)—last weekend, I think, when my friend Kelly Ramsdell mentioned it on Instagram? Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare. The title terrifies me. It sounds like more Deep Work. I scroll back up and tap open the Penelope Lively.
Oh dear, the Preface, I’m hooked already, I genuinely want to read this. By page two, I want to read it on paper. This keeps happening lately—is it a delayed reaction to purging our shelves of (sob) hundreds, really I think it might have been thousands, of books before the move last summer? We couldn’t afford to move them—you know how it is with books—and I’m sure there are still a thousand left on my shelves, here in Portland, it’s not like I’m deprived…but I miss the abandoned ones. I remember particular volumes and where they lived on the shelves. I can’t think about it too hard. And I’m not buying books at the moment but I keep wanting to. I want this one, this Dancing Fish and hello, you had me at Ammonites to hold in my hand, to mark up with underlines and notes. Earlier today I was pining for a hard copy of Deep Work—again the urge to scrawl in the margins, to make satisfying little checkmarks next to bits I like.
Penelope Lively ends her preface with this:
“…most of us end up with an identifying cargo—that painting, this vase, those titles on the shelf. I can give eloquence to mine—I know what they are saying. Not so much detachment here; more, a flicker of memoir proper—a voyage around the eighty years by way of two ammonites, a pair of American ducks, leaping fish…And a raft of books.”
Oh Penelope, what are you doing to me?
I flick to chapter one but my eyes have left the screen; I’m staring at the nearest shelf and thinking, suddenly, that what I ought to do is forget about all the books I don’t have on hand and just—oh it’s a ludicrous thought, I know that even before the thought completes—read my way back through my own shelves. Every book, one after another, in the order in which I find them on the shelf: a sort of Julie-and-Julia project, aspic and all.
Ridiculous, I know. But the idea tickles my fancy and I go to the bookcase nearest the bed, just to see. Top left corner, the obvious place to start. Oh but I can’t start there—it’s the Norton Anthologies, the five we kept for homeschooling purposes. You can’t start with Norton Anthologies! Can you?
Next in line: The Lord of the Rings. Which, you know, you don’t have to twist my arm to get me to fall into those volumes…but it is wise? How many dozens of times have I read them!
(The Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature is whispering to me. How long is it since I’ve read The Awakening? The Bluest Eye?)
The rest of that shelf is old Greensboro Reviews—I was poetry editor in the early 90s—and some back issues of Flow Magazine. This will never do. I huff impatiently and turn away from this bookcase, which is laughable, since shelves four and five are where I’ve been stashing books I own but haven’t read yet and really want to. Look, I’m tired, I worked really hard today, I’m perhaps a bit irrational. There are two tall, crammed bookcases on the next wall. Top left corner: some picture books, I can skip those (or can I? what rules do I want to invent for this game I know I’m not actually going to play?); what’s the first novel-length book on the shelf?
Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat. Er, I’m not in the mood. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle, hahahahaha. Next. Papa’s Daughter by Thyra Ferré Bjorn, read half to tatters before I turned eighteen, and perhaps only once since. If it were Papa’s Wife I might have succumbed—the Lucia crown; the lutefisk and the midnight sun!—but Papa’s Daughter, eh, I feel impatient with Button’s moods already. Oh here’s The Sherwood Ring, lying sideways because I pulled it out two weeks ago for a juicy reread…and then didn’t. I stand there for a moment, falling into page one, this is perfect, it’s just what I was looking for to counterbalance Deep Work. (Forgetting again that I already have that counterbalance with the Mary Stewart novel I started the other night, which one is it this time? Nine Coaches Waiting, that’s right.) (Nobody mention the subtitle of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Oh, that’s rich.)
I abandon Sherwood Ring, too, and wander to the computer to chronicle this foolish indecision, this half hour I could have spent, you know, READING. I’ve crammed all the books back on the shelf. It’s 9:30, which is when I watch TV.
Yesterday was all about tying up the loose ends of my reading life in order to start the year with a clean slate. I looked over everything I’m in the middle of—so many books!—and decided, after some reflection, to take Penny’s advice from the comments and dive into the old favorites calling my name in that stack, or some very like them. Ever since I read Thornyhold, I’ve been hankering after The Scent of Water and Wise Child. And Lesley mentioned Miss Read…and I happened upon a description of Mary Stewart’s Rose Cottage that sounds even more enchanting than her Thornyhold. Impatiently waiting for the library copy to arrive…
(It occurs to me Thornyhold also has something of the flavor of Linnets and Valerians, which I’ve not reread in a few years…)
Anyway! That was yesterday’s Old Year Week work. Today I turned my sights to correspondence and (gulp) answered emails dating as far back as 2016. Mortifying but true. Snail mail correspondence is next, and feels like a luxury, not a chore. I’m still working this week, but at greatly reduced hours, and, well, after the year I’ve had, that feels like heaven.
It’s funny—I woke up this morning thinking: Right. I’m going to grant myself amnesty at the end of the year. Anything (non work-related, and work includes my Patreon) hanging unfinished—email, DMs, comment replies, reading plans, household chores, book reviews—all of it gets swept away at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and I will start afresh. And then immediately upon having cut myself this break, I began answering messages I should have replied to (wanted to reply to!) more than a year ago. By noon, I was all caught up. Why did I let it pile up in the first place? Answering was a pleasure—as soon as I gave myself permission not to.
Tomorrow I want to spend some time making High Tide plans for January. I’ll try to share those here. I say try to because I’ve learned not to make promises unless absolutely necessary. Curve balls happen and then I feel guilty. 🙂 But I miss, miss, miss this poor old blog and I’m trying (trying!) to restore some lost habits.
Related to that, I’ve been (again! perpetually!) pondering what, if any, changes I want to make in my social media habits this year. I visit Twitter maybe once a day now, almost out of a sense of obligation: I follow smart thinkers and feel a duty to check in on the day’s social and political commentary. But I can only manage it in small doses. I went almost totally silent on Facebook this fall…popping in occasionally when that same sense of duty propelled me to activism. Which I know is the opposite approach of many (most) of my friends, who have resolved not to bring activism or politics to Facebook. Sometimes my conscience says: you have to talk about this, so I try (try!) to listen. But I logged out of FB on my phone and tucked the app into a folder where it isn’t staring me in the face. I deleted all the games off my phone and unsubscribed from all but a handful of merchant newsletters. The few I kept are for small shops whose owners write thoughtful articles instead of spamming you with sale ads. ::shudder:: Ads bring out the Grinch in me: Oh the noise, noise, noise, noise!
Instagram remains a pleasant haven, a place to smile over friends’ family photos and adventures, and to enjoy glimpses of charming artwork or people’s book piles. Wisteria and Sunshine is a nourishing virtual retreat, like visiting Thornyhold or Juniper’s cottage; and there’s a small creative community I’m part of that is a daily delight. Mostly, though, I’ve wandered away from community discourse…which isn’t very like me, but I’ve had so much work on my plate, and I think I needed some breathing-in time. I’m feeling the wind change, though. I love turning the page to a new year. Always have.
December 27, 2017 @ 4:43 pm | Filed under: Books
Year after year, this may be my favorite week for blogging. “Old Year Week,” as Mole calls it. I love tidying things up and making a fresh start. It’s a time, too, for reflection: what worked this year; what didn’t. I wasn’t able to be as consistent with daily posting as I’d hoped at the start of the year, but who could have predicted what this year would hold for me, for all of us. Methinks I can cut myself a little bit of slack. 😉
I worked on my sidebar booklog for a while yesterday—it was woefully behind—and discovered to my horror that I had written “Douglas Adams” as the author of Watership Down, which would have been a verrrry different kind of book. I’m going to hope it’s a case of nobody noticing, rather than that you were all too polite to point it out. 😉
Most years, this is the week that my fall Cybils reading frenzy is suddenly, breathlessly, over—finalists selected, blurbs written, book towers carted off to other parts of the house. That’s the case today for my Round 1 panelists, but this year I’m YA category chair only, not one of the YA readers. (I’m a Round 2 judge in Early Readers and Chapter Books, but that work doesn’t start until the New Year, and instead of reading 70-some YA novels in two months as in years past, I’ll only be reading the short lists of finalists. Big difference.)
Anyway, most years right around this date, I find myself suddenly at liberty to read (gasp) anything I want. It’s a tremendous feeling. This year I have a list of books begun earlier in the year, which I’d like to finish up but probably won’t. 2017 was for me a year of leaning on old friends—Hanff, Nesbit, Byatt, Montgomery, Tey, and (ahem) RICHARD Adams—and cozy mysteries during and after the months of my cancer treatment. And a steady course of Moomintrolls in our readaloud life. 🙂 No regrets whatsoever. But I do feel like stretching a bit and picking up something challenging or long-awaited. I also have a few last Arrow books to finish up: a delicious sort of work, that.
I’m not making new reading goals yet. I did make a little shelf for myself, in much the same way that I like to assemble enticing collections of readalouds and read-alones for my kids. It’s partly a real shelf (I’ve been in a hard-copy mood more and more often, lately) and partly virtual—a pile of tomes I’ve been carting around on my Kindle for ages.
A different stack entirely: old favorites I pulled out one day to discuss on a video for my Patreon, but never did. Hmm…now I want to reread The Firelings. And The Sherwood Ring. And The Gammage Cup, which isn’t even in the pile. Oh dear, is there no end to my book gluttony?
This post ran off in a different direction than I intended when I began. I’ll save the other train of thought for later. Until then, I hope Old Year Week brings you some peaceful down time in which to indulge your own bookish whims.
My morning view is changing. From the reading chair in my studio I look out upon my backyard neighbor’s roof, and my next-door neighbors’ trees. This photo was taken on October 25th or 26th. Two weeks later, the trees on the right and the ones behind that chimney are bare. The robins that hopped in and out of that big magnolia on the left all day long seem to have moved to warmer quarters. I was surprised by how long they stuck around!
I worked a lot this weekend, so this morning I feel like I could use…a weekend. 😉 Instead, we have a full day in store: an audiology appointment for S, and then some lesson time with Huck and Rilla, and then I have another issue of The Arrow to wrap up.
But I feel like the major task I want to accomplish today is deciding what book to read. My option paralysis has hit again, something awful. I’ve read about twenty beginnings since the last book I finished. It’s maddening. I think what I’m wanting at the moment is a book both absorbing and stirring, with humor and local dramas…like Guernsey Literary Society or Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Maybe I’ll just reread The Blue Castle for the four thousandth time while I make up my mind on something new.