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

The Shadow Effect – Chopra, Ford, Williamson

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The Shadow Effect is an interesting examination of the hidden side of the persona–the part we wish wasn’t. But, as surely as day is followed by night, the imperfect, angry, selfish, lonely, depressed bits are there, just waiting for the exact moment to interject some drama into our act. Uh oh. Deepak Chopra, Debbie Ford and Marianne Williamson, all bestselling purveyors of self-help and well-known workshop leaders, teamed up on a book that is divided into three sections, one per guru. Some parts are better than others but I suspect that each style appeals to a different reader and what bored me might just save you. There’s plenty of good stuff to go around.

Chopra brings his signature mix of ayurvedics, Eastern mysticism, Western science and psychology to section 1. He preaches unity–of your conscious and subconscious for starters. By accepting the shadow side, we integrate all parts of ourselves and can then recognize that our preference for seeing ourselves as separate and disconnected from all of life is the root of the problem. Nation at war? All of its citizens contributed–not just the jingoistic nationalists. Unrequited love? Look for the ways in which you reject yourself and then stop doing that. You will make healthier choices and you can give up your subconscious need for rejection. I oversimplify–his argument is much more nuanced.

Ford tells her own anguished story of losing sight of herself as a young teen and suffering years of increasing acting out and alienation, addictions, drug problems and unhappiness before she finally began to get it. I found her crystal clear examples of how what we repress emerges to haunt us to be the most elucidating treatment of the three. Ford uses real people and their very public train wrecks to show the simple flip side of the facade. Her account provides a non-threatening way to examine your own shadows–you do have them, despite your nearly perfect life.

Williamson gets into the nitty gritty, with stories about how tough it can be to release shadow bahaviors just by recognizing that they exist. I thought that was a tad discouraging, probably because I don’t subscribe to her default problem-solving prescription: ask God for help. That’s not my m.o. and I always feel that religion-as-solution is disempowering–but it may be the right approach for a lot of people. In any case, the subject is a downer but the variety of viewpoints and the pragmatic advice offered is positive. The Shadow Effect makes excellent sense and doesn’t quit until it offers you a way to make peace with your unfavorite traits and behaviors.

The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the Hidden Power of Your True Self   Deepak Chopra, Debbie Ford, Marianne Williamson | HarperOne   2010

The Ultimate Happiness Prescription – Deepak Chopra

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The Ultimate Happiness Prescription was the thinnest book on the stack so it bumped the 400, 500 and 900+ page monsters aside. Deepak Chopra rides to the rescue on a day hijacked by too much real life. Good message for the frazzled, in any case. The book explores spiritual and neurological dispositions toward emotional equanimity and follows each of seven keys (Deepak Chopra likes to write self-help books in lists of seven) with some simple steps to move your happiness set point up on the scale.

It’s quite sensible, not very woo-woo at all. Body awareness provides clues to how you really feel about events, circumstances and decisions. Chopra examines the interrelatedness of matter, the energy field consisting of the entire universe and you in it, as he tells you to pay attention to what you feel and where in the body you feel it. Stress affects certain areas, anger and fear others—by bringing awareness to physical feelings you can mitigate and even heal what might be making you unhappy, or unwell.

There’s a very good section on being present in the moment. Nothing new about the teaching—it is thousands of years old—but it is a powerful catalyst for change. The point is that happiness can only exist in the moment because the past is over and the future does not yet exist. That seems obvious but we cart around so much baggage that we seldom devote full awareness and appreciation to the present. Chopra recommends a mindfulness practice to increase present-moment awareness. He emphasizes the benefits of meditation as well.

I tend to like Chopra’s audio and video lectures more than his books. Those events seem to treat subjects in greater depth than the slim, nicely laid-out books. But The Ultimate Happiness Prescription is worth the relatively short amount of time it takes to read it and probably worth a few re-reads, too. The activities Chopra suggests and the points he makes apply to every type of self-improvement effort. In the end, he delivers an introduction to the quest for enlightenment—not some exalted mystical state but a better, saner, more intelligent and, well, happier way to live in this world.

The Ultimate Happiness Prescription: 7 Keys to Joy and Enlightenment   Deepak Chopra | Harmony Books 2009

The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul – Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

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Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is a teacher in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya Sufi Order and the author of several books on global consciousness and the concept of oneness. The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul is a collection of talks and teachings that expound on his thinking. I picked it up after hearing him speak in a conference with the shaman Sandra Ingerman. It’s unusual to hear a spiritual teacher so wholly committed to the concept that the patriarchal repression for millennia of matriarchal or feminine energy got us into this planetary mess we experience today. Vaughan-Lee believes we must rediscover and honor the feminine if the world is to heal itself and we are to survive.

He makes a compelling argument that the deep knowledge of creation is embodied in woman and that energy is the key to transforming our existence. His beliefs imbue the planet with a life and consciousness and he invokes teachings about the anima mundi or world soul and the lumen dei or divine light and how the material presence of the one is not inferior to the transcendence of the other.

It’s very interesting and might read at first as complicated to an initiate. But the chapters explain and revisit Vaughan-Lee’s arguments so you can grasp his meaning from various perspectives. This is both a strength and a failing of the book. I would recommend reading it over time rather than in one big gulp. Read in a single setting, it feels unnecessarily repetitive. Contemplated in a more leisurely study, The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul, is a lucid primer to another way of looking at the problems we have created on this planet and the ways in which we might fix them.

I borrowed the book from the library but it will go on my acquisitions list because I think I’ll want to revisit it more than once. I’m always resistant to male explanations of why women have the responsibility to repair the damage, but Vaughan-Lee’s writing does seem reasoned and sincere and there is a wisdom to be gained from it. The Return of the Feminine…is a book to underline and to work with. Many of the passages are powerful and beautiful and I will use them to inspire my intuitive inclusion of these ideas in my own fiction.

The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul   Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee | The Golden Sufi Center   2009