Posts Tagged ‘what I’m reading’
(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?
“Tell me some more about your valley,” she said to Moomintroll.
“It’s the most wonderful valley in the world,” he answered. “There are blue-trees with pears growing on them, and chatterfinches sing from morning till night, and there are plenty of silver poplars, which are wonderful for climbing—I thought of building a house for myself in one of them. Then, at night, the moon is reflected in the river, which tinkles over the rocks with a sound like broken glass, and pappa has built a bridge that is wide enough for a wheelbarrow.”
“Must you be so poetic?” said Sniff. “When we were in the valley you only talked about how wonderful other places were.”
“That was different,” said Moomintroll.
“But it’s true,” said Snufkin. “We’re all like that. You must go on a long journey before you can really find out how wonderful home is.”
—Tove Jansson, Comet in Moominland
Huck this morning: “Why are you on a site called Goo Dreads?”
Dread is actually an apt word for my feelings about catching up my Goodreads, which (thanks to Cybils) is about thirty YA novels behind. I’m trying, but it wants time I do not have. And then there’s my booklog here at Bonny Glen, which is a whole other task. Maybe I’ll outsource it to a kid.
Today’s picture book: Hedgie’s Surprise by Jan Brett. A natural choice after yesterday’s pick. I think this one may be my favorite of Brett’s Hedgie stories. And the needlepoint patterns in the margins have me itching to paint. Maybe that’ll be my drawing challenge subject for the day.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’m hoping to sketch every day this year. A few weeks ago, Scott remarked offhandedly that I ought to draw more bears. So during that night’s art date with Rilla, I pulled up a Google image search and tried my hand at a few. Yesterday I attempted a polar bear. I went right to the good paper, which might have been a disaster because I thoroughly botched the proportions and put the face way too low. Fortunately I have learned to use something water-soluble for my first rough sketch. (Or pencil. I love pencil. A lot of instructors tell you to avoid pencil, but I think they see relative shapes a lot better than I do. I need to be able to shift things around. Like when the nose ends up where the chin should be.) I often begin with a blue or brown watercolor pencil and go over that with black waterproof ink. Lately I’m enjoying a gray Kuretake Fudegokochi brush pen. When I mess up on my first pass, as I inevitably do, I can blur the mistakes into shadow with a waterbrush. The bear is still messy but I was much happier after I redid his face in black ink.
Someone asked how I’m finding time to keep up the sketchbook practice, given all the work on my plate this year. The answer is: I give it fifteen minutes a day. That’s all. I mean, there are days when I get lucky and find some extra time, like if I sit on a bench and draw while the kids are at the playground. But sometimes I prefer to read during playground time instead. And so I’ve committed a quarter of an hour to sketching every evening at 9pm. Fifteen minutes isn’t much. (That’s a big part of why that polar bear is so messy.) But it’s something. It’s what I can manage, for now, and that’s enough.
This morning I sorted two bookcases’ worth of books. I’ve pulled together a new row of picture books for our daily selections—enough to last us for four months, if we read one a day. Every book I handled felt like another conversation, a whole post unto itself. It’s funny that I had so many days last year where I couldn’t come up with anything to blog about—I learned a long time ago all I have to do is walk over to one of my shelves.
At one point this morning I had at least a hundred books in piles on the floor, swallowing the room, when I came across our copy of Material World. Which, if you haven’t seen it, is a collection of photographs of families around the world with all their material possessions spread in front of their homes. The variation between quantity of stuff from family to family is staggering. We Americans, we…accumulate a lot of things. Like, say, books.
We finished Understood Betsy just before the holidays, and now I need to choose the next readaloud. Scott read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever the whole family (including the college kids and me), which bought me time to decide, but…I’m still undecided. We still have so many great books in the pile for this year! Jane (still home for winter break) is plumping for The Firelings. Which may have been one of the first readalouds I ever wrote about on this blog. Maybe it’s time. 🙂
After the morning’s bookcase jamboree, I took the younger kids to the playground. I’ve been a lot better about this lately—you know my older girls practically grew up at local parks, but rhythms change when you have teens, and park visits had all but disappeared from our routine for a while. But last fall I stepped it back up. They’re old enough that I can sit, as I said, and read or sketch. Or catch up on blogs. 🙂 Which makes me That Mother you see condemned in posts that make the rounds occasionally—you know, the ones written in tones half imploring, half scolding, about much you miss when you’re staring at your phone while your kids are playing. “I watched your beautiful daughter twirling around in joy and you—you missed it. Because Facebook.” Those always make me laugh. I’m like: honey, I have been taking my kids to the playground since 1995. I have stood in line at the post office with an imaginary goldfish in my hand. I have sat on hospital beds entertaining a toddler with playdough by the hour. I’ve spent all morning homeschooling them. I’ve read thousands of books out loud. Literally thousands! So here at the playground? I’m good. They’re, you know, playing. They don’t need me hovering over them on the jungle gym. In fact, you just know the next article in my feed is going to be a screed against helicopter parenting. So I’m just going to sit here with my magical smartphone and catch up on some reading. Or play a game. Or maybe even goof around on Facebook. Which is where I happened to be when I came across your post, so don’t pretend you aren’t doing the same thing.
Favorite playground moment today: we’d just arrived and my kids were already up the hill toward the play equipment. As I got out of the minivan, a preschooler in a bright orange shirt jumped out of the next car over, took two steps onto the grass, and shouted, “I’m here!” To no one, and everyone.
Today was too chilly for sitting on a bench. (Sorry, Facebook.) We had unusually heavy rains recently (I mean, it’s San Diego; rain is unusual, period) and there were big sploshy puddles all over the place. The kids mostly avoided them by keeping to the mountain peaks of the jungle gym. I decided to get a bit of exercise in by walking laps around the wide, flat grassy area adjacent to the playground. You can see the play area from the whole circumference, so you don’t even have to miss That Mother’s beautiful daughter twirling around in ignored joy if you choose.
I pulled up an audiobook I started several months ago, Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful Landmarks, which is about the language we use for things in nature—terrain, weather, flora. Specifically: the “place-words” of the United Kingdom. When last I listened to this book, I was playing Minecraft. And as soon as the new chapter loaded and the narrator with his wonderful accent began reading the opening lines, my mind was flooded with images of the house I’d built in that particular Minecraft world—a birch cabin on a bluff overlooking a river, with a village in the distance and a craggy mountain rising behind. I remember thinking at the time that Landmarks was the perfect book to listen to while playing Minecraft, since both are so thoroughly centered around terrain. It was also perfect for listening to on a brisk walk through a soggy park. Macfarlane even mentioned a Scottish word for “a person who is walking briskly”—I need to get hold of a hard copy and look it up, because I missed it on the walk, what with all the puddle-sploshing.
It’s terrible, in fact—every other sentence made me long for a print edition of the book to mark up and dog-ear—on the very day when I’ve embarked on a ruthless shelf-culling endeavor! Plus now we’re past both Christmas and my birthday. 😉 I’ll have to get it from the library, though, because Chapter 4 is all about a Scottish author named Nan Shepherd and her book The Living Mountain, “a celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland.” There were easily five quotes in the first ten minutes that I wanted to copy down. Which I could have done if I were sitting on a bench staring at my phone. I’m just saying.
Backing up to the Minecraft thing for a moment—I’m amazed by how clearly I can picture that map, and even remember some of the adventures that befell me there, just because I was listening to an audiobook while playing. I mean, I’ve played a lot of Minecraft over the years, with my kids and without them. The worlds all begin to blur together after a while. Except for those I’ve explored while listening to something on audio. I went through a whole slew of lectures a couple of years ago—mostly literature classes via Yale Open Course. I can’t just sit and listen to something; I have to be doing something with my hands. (This is why I make sure my kids have something to play with while I read to them.) Nowadays I usually use the listening time to sketch. Or to clean a bathroom. File some papers. But what I have found is that the lectures I listened to while playing Minecraft have stuck in my brain more clearly than the others. You see, the vivid connections are happening in both directions. I remember the house I built during Amy Hungerford’s Lolita lecture (so great!)—a small oak farmhouse with a well in the yard. I remember being down in the nearby mine fighting skeletons during the Wise Blood lecture. During Franny and Zooey I built a house of sandstone and constructed a monster trap nearby. And for all three lectures, I can recall the professor’s words with much more clarity than the one I listened to while scrubbing the bathroom. It’s like Minecraft gave me pegs to hang the lectures on. Or a map, both literal and figurative? I know this: I remember more detail from those lectures than ones I took actual notes on.
I know, I know, this post is ridiculous. You can’t have nine sections in a daily blog post. That’s serious overkill. If I had any sense, I’d have saved some of this for later in the week when open a draft and draw a blank. But I guess that’s one thing I’ve learned about myself in twelve years of blogging. If I save it, it’ll start to feel like A Topic, like something I need brain to tackle. And I have to save all my brains for work. So it’s overkill or nothing, I guess.
Well, maybe we’ll just consider this catch-up for months of sparse posting.
December 1, 2013 @ 8:13 am | Filed under: Books
• The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
• Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (my college friend Beth Malone is starring as grown-up Alison in the Off-Broadway musical and I decided it was high time I read the book)
• Everyone’s Reading Bastard by Nick Hornby (Kindle single)
• More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby (another collection of his Believer columns on his reading life, every one of which I’ve enjoyed immensely, as you can see in my Hornby archives)
• Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (selected essays)
• and many, many picture books for the Cybils (178 so far, but some of those were read earlier in the year)
In progress: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (after listening to her seminar in the Coursera class I’m taking on historical fiction, as discussed here)
November 22, 2013 @ 9:31 am | Filed under: Books
The historical fiction course I’m taking at Coursera continues to delight me, and this week’s Geraldine Brooks seminar on her plague novel, Year of Wonders, pretty much knocked my socks off. The professor, Dr. Bruce Holsinger of UVA, posted a long excerpt from what was also my favorite part of the seminar–Brooks on how she writes characters from other eras, how she forms their consciousness.
“And as a foreign correspondent in the contemporary world, I would hear people all the time saying, ‘They’re not like us.’ One side saying about the other—white South Africans about black, Palestinians about Israelis—‘Their values are different, they don’t love their kids, they’re willing to sacrifice them, they don’t have the same material needs that we have,’ and it’s all BS in my view. You know, the sound of somebody keening for a dead child, is exactly the same, no matter if they’re in a…New York apartment, or an Eritrean refugee camp. There’s a fundamental belief that the human heart hasn’t changed that much. … At a time when you couldn’t expect to raise your kids, when death was ever present, there would’ve been a different approach to loss. But I don’t think it felt any different, I don’t think the emotion of loss felt any different, and I don’t think hatred felt any different, and I don’t think love did. And so, that for me is, where you start, with believing that human beings have these strong emotions in common. And that, that is more crucial to shaping consciousness than the furniture in the room. So, that’s my conviction about historical fiction, and it … drives everything for me.”
There’s more, well worth the click-through. And if you sign up for the course (free), you can watch the videos. Such a treat to hear smart people talk about their work. Author Jane Alison’s seminar on her Ovid novel, The Love Artist, was also fascinating and thought-provoking. I haven’t yet watched the Katherine Howe videos (The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane)—greatly looking forward to it. Dr. Holsinger’s lectures have captivated me, to a one. Lots of peeks at rare first editions from UVA’s special collections library (swoon) and really excellent, meaty discussion of various historical fiction novels in their own historical context: Tale of Two Cities, Clotel, Anna Katharine Green‘s detective novel The Forsaken Inn (new to me, and the genesis of a subgenre, historical mystery). Dr. Holsinger even has me wanting to give James Fenimore Cooper another shot, which is saying something.
Looking forward to upcoming seminars on Mary Beth Keane’s Typhoid Mary novel, Fever, and Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride.
• Plague, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction •
I’m not in a book club at present, but I’ve been entertaining myself with thoughts of what books I would suggest to my book club if I belonged to one. This is because I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s sweeping, sad, thoughtful The Signature of All Things, and naturally I’m yearning for a nice long discussion of it, preferably involving baked goods. (I’m also wanting to start a moss garden, which in San Diego would be no mean feat.)
November 18, 2013 @ 7:57 pm | Filed under: Books
Other books I would throw into the ring:
1) The Diamond Age, Or: A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson. I read it a year or two before the advent of the iPad, and when that magical device appeared, all I could think of was the Primer. I enjoyed the book’s exploration of a ‘best’ education—what that might look like, what its aims might be, and the unpredictability of outcomes. And the mind-stretching nanotechnology permeating and altering society: this is a richly layered and sometimes difficult book, with much that made me uncomfortable (something I appreciate in a book), but also a compelling page-turner of a narrative. It’s one of those books I think about in the context of daily life quite often (and not just in connection to the iPad). It would be fun to dig into with a really lively, argumentative group of readers.
2) The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. I’ll be drummed out of my own imaginary book club if I keep suggesting these mammoth tomes, but there it is. I’ve read The Children’s Book twice (three times? I’m losing track) in four or five years (also losing track; can’t be bothered to check my log now) and like The Diamond Age (and, I suspect, The Signature of All Things), it’s a book I find myself pondering in many a stray moment. A curling fern frond, a strand of seaweed, a beautifully glazed pot, the Nesbit books on my shelf, a reference to William Morris, a pre-Raphaelite painting, a sinister undercurrent in a fairy tale—any number of things send me straight back into the pulsing green world of this Fabian family and their troubled, talented, struggling circle of artist-friends. Downton Abbey was full of reminders (Lavinia’s clothes, Sybil’s causes, Branson’s political activism, the devastation and radical shifting of relationships and ways of life during and after WWI). No work of fiction in recent years has sent me on more rabbit trails, nor hounded my thoughts so relentlessly.
3) Feed by M. T. Anderson. It’s been several years; I’m due for a reread. Every year this book feels more prescient. We may not have the Feed implanted in our brains quite yet, but we’re closer than we were the first time I read it. Won’t it be fun to fumble for words about how alarming we found the notion of a society so dependent on an advertising-driven stream of information piped directly into their minds that people can barely form a coherent thought anymore, much less an original one? And then we can all post photos of our desserts to Instagram.
4) Hmm, we’ll need something by Muriel Spark. A Far Cry from Kensington, I think, but perhaps I’m leaning too much on my own favorites. Certainly The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would provide fodder for hours of discussion. Actually, Miss Brodie would make a tremendous follow-up to Feed and The Diamond Age: all of them exploring ways of educating (even shaping) young minds. Oh, what am I talking about—Signature and The Children’s Book fall right into that category as well. Education isn’t by any means the only theme of these books, but it’s a dominant thread in each, one way or another. You’d almost think this was a pet topic of mine, or something.
5) Well then, let me throw something entirely different into the mix: how about American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields by Rowan Jacobsen. I can brag about how he’s a friend and former classmate of mine, and of course we’ll have to have a tasting party to accompany our discussion of this book, a fascinating exploration of how terrain affects flavor (in many subtle ways), and why certain regions are famous for specific foods. I’ll bring the chocolate, you bring the maple syrup.
6) Now here I go reverting back to favorite books about unconventional upbringings, but when’s the last time you read Midnight Hour Encores? It’s one of my favorite YA novels, right up there with Emily of Deep Valley (though utterly unlike) and…hmm, that’s a different list, my favorite YA. Anyway: Encores features one of my favorite dads in all of literature, and an ending that takes my breath away every time.
7) But it isn’t quite fair of me to stack the deck with books I’ve already read, most of them more than twice. How about something new? I’ve got Donna Tartt’s latest, The Goldfinch, on hold at the library. I’m #70 in the queue, but since this is an imaginary book club, I’ll just imagine myself next in line.
How about you? What’s up next in your book club—real or imagined?
A.S. Byatt, American Terroir, Bruce Brooks, Elizabeth Gilbert, Emily of Deep Valley, Feed, M.T. Anderson, Midnight Hour Encores, Muriel Spark, Neal Stephenson, Rowan Jacobsen, Signature of All Things, The Children's Book, The Diamond Age, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, what I'm reading, what to read in book club, YA
November 6, 2013 @ 7:22 pm | Filed under: Books
The next volume of Scott’s alternate history/thriller series, Uncivil War, is now available for Kindle. A collection of five short stories, on sale for 99 cents. If you’ve read Vol. 1, The Island, and are eager to hear more about Harry and Buttercup, you’ll have to wait… 🙂 This volume, After the Fall, features new characters, new story arcs (and is decidedly not YA, I should add, in case the first installment gave that impression).
More books I wanted to mention: Sarah Elwell’s The Memory of Light and Otherwise. Sarah’s writing has been some of my favorite on the internet since I discovered her old blog, Homespun—way back in 2005, was it? She blogs now at Knitting the Wind and Gnossienne, and writes poetry and fiction as well. I have a special hand-bound edition of Otherwise that I cherish. Both books are available as ebooks, and Sarah is offering them on her website, asking a small donation toward her daughter’s athletic training. (She is a serious—and seriously talented—windsurfer, working toward Nationals.) You can find out more at Gnossienne.
Thanks to my pal Karen Edmisten, I recently read Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, and loved it, couldn’t put it down. Made Scott read it immediately afterward so we could discuss. (He’s very obliging that way.) Have you read it? Want to gab?
I’m still reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which, since it’s about a nineteeth-century lady botanist, is the very definition of had-me-at-hello. I’m not very far in yet; got waylaid by the aforementioned Bernadette and then a sudden inexplicable need to reread Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. These things happen. But Alma’s a mighty captivating character and I’m looking forward to following her farther into the century.
What are you reading right now?