Category Archives: Essays

365+ Books & a Few Good Stories

“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.”

― Cornelia FunkeInkheart

I read every day for a year. I have been a voracious reader all my life but events eroded my time and my enthusiasm and I read very little for a number of years, until last October. In the middle of a collapsing life in a collapsing civilization, with panic keeping me up all night, I began staying up half the night to read and blog about books. Some of those books were sheer crap. Some were really really pedestrian. Quite a few left me wondering how they ever got published. A far smaller number stunned me with their inventiveness, imagination, eloquence and brilliance. I met memorable characters. I waded through mudflats of stereotypes, caricatures, and just plain stupid attempts to put people on the page–lots of fails. Reading so much made me hungry for really good books.

Discovered anew there are no new stories. I can predict plots fairly well–comes of having been a bookish child–and I honed that skill appreciably by reading every day. The daily word count forced me to finish a lot of books I would have abandoned and sadly set aside big fat tomes I would have worked through for as long as it took. I’m happy to have freedom of choice back. But I’m interested to note that I’m a lot calmer about the wreckage of the world I knew than I was last year. There are other worlds, just next to this one. We can choose to inhabit them if they appeal to us more. It is necessary to acknowledge that, though, and most people would think it madness. Read enough books and madness comes to resemble sanity.

I will keep reading but I’m shifting the lion’s share of my time, outside of the typing-for-pennies work, to my own writing. I have no illusions about what it takes to make up stories but I’m well aware now that the time is a luxury. Aware as well that time is the one irreplaceable currency. There are many ways to access better worlds than this limited and shabby one–music, theatre, art, sailing, contemplation, reading books, writing them.  A book is a passage to somewhere else it might be worth exploring. Capturing stories in words is a bridge to a world you create–and who can say it is any less real than the dreams and nightmares we trudge through now?

“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
― Voltaire

Once upon a time, I thought the challenge of reading a-book-a-day would save me. Instead it reminded me that I am perfectly capable of saving myself. And I have stacks of unread volumes piled all over the house for the hours every day when I will gratefully open the covers and step inside a story. Humans are narratives. That’s not a metaphor. We are just a bunch of swirling molecules we perceive in the shape of a story. Every single person–told or unrecounted–is a story.  That’s enough reason for hope.

“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” 
― Miguel de Cervantes SaavedraDon Quixote

The end.

Booked: The Countdown

One week to go. I will have read and blogged a book every day for a year. A crazy idea–even an avid reader can’t give a good book its due in such a mad dash. There have been days when the necessity to read and blog a book saved me. There were even more days when I thought it would kill me.

No magic was disturbed, activated or experienced in the reading of these books. Life handed out no bonbons, in fact, it was a brutal year in a relentless economic depression that remains a giant, ongoing soul-suck. Some days I spent so much time scraping the bowl of client and web content writing to cover the rent that I was up until dawn finishing my book and typing who-knows-what into this blog. Some days I gnashed my teeth at bad writing, amateur plotting, teeny-teeny type, irritating characters or fiction-fails between book covers.  Some days I gratefully slipped into a good book and lost myself in another world.

I thought some highly-regarded novels were dreck and some well-done genre novels were divine. I loved most of the children’s books and some of the YA. I did not become enlightened. But I read a lot of books. Still reading. I wish I had time to tackle some fat, fabulous epics for the last leg. Alas, I’m still grabbing whatever the library gives up and plowing through it after the day’s demands are met. Or not exactly met. In-between scanning and scribbling, I’m going to try to sort out what I got from this book-a-day year and sum up whatever I discover on the 15th. The day after I close the cover of the last book, note it here, and hand-select a few uncracked classics to peruse at my leisure.

Holy the Firm – Annie Dillard

I’ve been a fan of Annie Dillard forever. She turns woods walking into a profoundly mystical experience. And her prose–her prose hovers always at the edge of poetry. In this slim collection of three connected essays, it slips over the edge. Holy the Firm is purely poetic. Every word seems chosen from a depth of meditation like some bit of mineral from the ocean floor. Dillard uses words as she imagines them, not as we remember them. She makes language into music and ideas into fragments of sky. And she is as ruthlessly brutal as the wonders and horrors she describes.

In Holy the Firm, Dillard watches a moth stick itself into the molten wax of a candle, burst into flame, curl, shrivel, ash apart until it is only a slender husk, a vertical wick for the flame. She reads by its light for two hours.  The metaphor is apt for an artist–a writer–and stunning. And terrible. Her cat brings gifts of dead birds. She tosses the cat out the door and a bird over the porch rail for whatever fate of consummation awaits it. And she writes: “Into this world fell a plane…It fell easily; one wing snagged on a fir top; the metal fell down the air and smashed in the thin woods where cattle browse; the fuel exploded; and Julie Norwich seven years old burnt off her face.”

Now let your breath out. This is a child, not a moth, and this, too, happened at the edge of the Pacific Ocean where Dillard was holed up in a one-room house with a glass wall facing West. The weight of words is no different for a view of the mountains, a spider behind the toilet, a human tragedy of unimaginable agony.  The writer tries to make sense of it, tries for the numinous in all of it, supposes the ruined child will be gifted with a wisdom far beyond her years. Better she should have a face. But how do we comprehend the unapproachable? Where in the sea or sky is there space to contain the unforgivable, the inexplicable?

A moth becomes a wick that contains the flame. The bright hope of a child’s life flames out. There are islands hidden behind islands in the mist. Dillard believes in a god who has something to do with all of it. She accepts the hardness of rock, the vulnerability of frailty. And she must wait, at the water’s edge, at the place where the land ends, for the exact word, the never-before-used-in-exactly-this-way word, to fit the puzzle of her observations precisely within the frame of a skinny book, page by page.

Holy the Firm   Annie Dillard | Harper Colophon  1984

A Cat – Leonard Michaels

A cat is not owned by anybody. Leonard Michael writes a meditation on felines that is as gorgeous and full of mystery as–a cat. Not surprisingly, the book of wonderful line drawings and short reflections is called A Cat. If you have ever been privileged to reside in the same space as one of these rare creatures you would appreciate the attempt to capture the essence of cat on paper, in ink. No one can actually do that, but Leonard comes close. It’s clear he has been intimately acquainted with a cat or two.

A cat weighs about as much as a baby, and it sleeps most of the day; but if a cat were fifteen pounds heavier, it wouldn’t seem cute, and it could tear your throat out.

A cat doesn’t look at itself when you hold it up to a mirror. It acts as if nothing appeared in the glass. That’s because a cat believes it is invisible. A cat has to believe this because, when stalking, it has to be invisible in the eyes of its prey. To be a cat, you must be invisible and very real at the same time. Worshippers believe this of God.

When a cat shuts its eyes, you disappear.

Dogs tend to look like their masters, but this is never true of a cat. A cat is a highly particular creature.

Dogs, birds and ferrets can be trained to hunt. A cat refuses to be trained. Superb hunter, it will not enslave its genius for a person. However, if a cat loves you, it may bring you a kill, warm and bleeding, and drop it on the living room rug where you can’t fail to see it, or drop it beside your bedroom slippers so that, first thing in the morning, you can step on it. A cat’s gift–warm, soft, wet kiss against the bottom of your naked foot–leaves a red blotch, like lipstick.

I lived with two spectacular cats for nearly 21 years. They were fabulous, photogenic, affectionate, jealous, graceful, clunky, playful and brilliant. One could fly and she taught me several games she liked to play. One was a puddle of affection and loved to sleep curled up on my laptop. I had no idea about cats until they took over my life. Now we have an amazing and shockingly adorable rabbit. He lives in a dollhouse. He is very aware of his status as prey. Anxiety is a palpable thing for him. He is so covered in fluff that I doubt a predator could even figure out what he was or how to stalk him. Nevertheless, we will not be opening the door to any more cats out of respect for his personal views. He does resemble one of our cats, though, in physical attributes and a certain quizzical look now and again. And he runs the house, a very cat-like quality.

A Cat   Leonard Michaels | Riverhead Books   1995

The Art of Fiction – David Lodge

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David Lodge collected a series of newspaper columns and embellished them–restoring the edited-for-length bits–to make this exploration of how fiction is constructed. As a writer, I find The Art of Fiction fascinating, if somewhat frustrating. There’s a little bit of everything in it: beginnings, point of view, time shift, showing and telling, stream of consciousness, epistolary novels, magic realism, weather, comic novels, different voices, suspense, surrealism, narrative structure, unreliable narrators, symbolism–a long list. There’s even a chapter about lists.

Each subject is illustrated with an excerpt from a novel that Lodge diligently deconstructs to show how the thing works. Pretty useful but occasionally too ambiguous to leave you with a clear sense of how you might achieve the same effect, or what the general elements of a particular style might be. Lodge rips through some of my favorite writers–John Fowles, Jane Austen, Samuel Beckett, Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, et cetera, et cetera, and points out what I never noticed. There are a lot of classic and sort of contemporary (not current) excerpts and their authors.

Fun things poke their heads up in the middle of serious topics. For “Repetition,” we get an excerpt form Hemingway’s “In Another Country” that sounds as if Gertrude Stein wrote it. “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in  the fall in Milan and the dark came very early…It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.”  Oh, Ernest, how was I ever so smitten with you?

Lodge reminds us that chapters are not a sacred law of novels and early fiction was one continuous flow of writing without chapter breaks. This can be exhausting to read–note James Joyce–and chapters can serve to give the reader a breather or transition from one time or place to another. Sir Walter Scott started the fad for introducing a chapter with an epigraphic quotation. I’ve recently read mysteries where each chapter was introduced by a chocolate recipe. Distracting but delectable.

The Art of Fiction is worth a read. It opens your eyes to what the writer is really doing  to manipulate the reader–at times, successfully, at other times, annoyingly. I’m going to give it a quick re-read before I have to return  it to the library. Much to learn but little time to ponder it.

The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts   David Lodge | Viking   1993

Woolgathering – Patti Smith

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Woolgathering is a curious little book. Patti Smith wrote it, on demand, for the publisher of Hanuman Books who was a friend. The books were as small as chapbooks so she wrote something more like runes or fragments of poems than a continuous story.

Parts of it read like a nervous breakdown set to words.

Some of it is poetry.

Most is reminiscence and reflection but some seems made up.

The language is oddly mannered, European and old-fashioned, sprinkled with jarring words like ‘kink’ and ‘hairy’ and discordant images like ‘razor blades’ and ‘walkie-talkie.’

She circles back again and again to rubies and blood. She tells a heartbreaking story of the death of her childhood dog. She moves in some mystical fog and dreams about dancing on clouds.

Reading Woolgathering, I was alternately irritated and fascinated. Is this book a spell or a self-indulgence?  I couldn’t tell. But a few bits about India I recognized. And cattail punks and minnows from the creek of my own childhood I remembered.

I decided it was an artifact, a thing mind-made or handmade in a slow time out of time. It holds blurry photographs from family albums. The focus is off, just slightly, a metaphor for another way to see.

Woolgathering   Patti Smith | New Directions Books   2011