The Great Work of Your Life – Stephen Cope

Stephen Cope, director of Kripalu Institute for extraordinary Living, undertakes the challenge of relating the teachings in the Bhagavad Gita to the tricky prospect of discovering–and embracing–your true dharma. The Great Work of Your Life is the result. It’s a very easy read, but a reflective one. Cope tells the tale of Arjuna the warrior at the moment of battle, collapsing to the floor of his chariot in despair. In front of him are lined up neighbors and kinsmen who will die at his hand or kill him. Yet it is his destiny as a great warrior to proceed. He is paralyzed and he begs his old friend and charioteer for advice. What he gets is full-bore Krishna (the charioteer) and a relentless instruction about surrender, action and detachment that Arjuna can’t quite grasp for a while.

Cope relates the Gita to the lives of celebrated and ordinary figures: Gandhi, Beethoven, Camille Corot, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, a priest caught in a mid-life identity crisis, a Jungian therapist facing her own mortality, a college friend who believed he was the reincarnation of John Keats, the poet Keats himself.  The stories illustrate the ways in which people encounter their dharma, deny it, accept it, live it. Jane Goodall was drawn to animals from the time she was a young child and had the good fortune to have a sympathetic and supportive mother. Thoreau tried his luck as a writer in greedy Gotham, was chewed up and spit out and repaired to light isolation at Walden Pond (his mother brought him sandwiches and cookies–not the wilds of Borneo) to figure out who he was and what he should do about that. Walt Whitman wrote and rewrote his genius work Leaves of Grass but was entering a period of serious aridity when the Civil War broke out and he found himself all over again caring for wounded soldiers. Robert Frost turned his back on the literary world and bought a farm so he could write poems after he repaired a few fences and gathered the apples.

They are wonderful teaching tales and Cope skillfully draws the heart of the message from each life. The task of discovering your dharma and turning it into the hours and days of your life is similar to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, from the invitation to enter the unknown, through initial hesitations, eventual trust, the loss of all familiar, fear, epiphany, the forging of a new identity, a re-entry to the known world and the integration of this richer new self and all it implies. Embrace your dharma, Cope asserts, and things unfold without much prodding. You can’t evade loss and pain but you encounter ecstasy and calm assurance. It sounds like mindfulness to the nth degree–you live in the now, fulfilled and contented and very present, fully alive, even when facing death.

I liked the book a lot. I’m going to haul out my Mahabharata and re-read the Bhagavad Gita as soon as I have time to think about it and take it slow. Some things really can’t be rushed (another teaching in The Great Work...). This book didn’t fall into my lap–I was looking for it when I found it. But it arrived at a convenient moment, as I sunset a business and way of working that’s no longer working for me and attempt to create something new and exhilarating in the ruins. If I don’t have to return The Great Work of Your Life to the library before next week, I might just read it again.

The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling   Stephen Cope | Bantam Books  2012

Squids Will Be Squids – Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith are like those bad boys at the magazine I once worked for who nearly always included jokes about Uruguay and boogers in their copy that you knew were coming but that made you snigger anyway. (I’m talking about you, Dave Barry.)  Squids Will Be Squids is a mad take on Aesop’s Fables that even manages to make fun of poor old Aesop. It’s kind of funny, though.

The art is wonderfully wacky, as it always is in Scieszka/Lane collaborations, and so is the text. Every double spread has a page of instructive parable in multi-sized fonts about creatures like elephants, ants, pigeons, termites, rabbits, duckbilled platypuses (Yes, that is the correct plural. I looked it up.), blowfish, echidnae, pieces of toast, Froot Loops–all the usual protagonists in a fable. There is a cogent moral to sum up each tale. An excellent and cautionary moral, if you are of the feathered persuasion, is: Whatever looks like a pigeon and acts like a pigeon usually makes good pigeon pie. (The particulars of that fable are too appalling to repeat.) Another really pithy reminder is: You should always tell the truth. But if your mom is out having the hair taken off her lip, you might want to forget a few of the details.

One moral involving a beefsnakstick and the aforementioned platypus has a conclusion especially relevant in our carcinogenic consumer culture: Just because you have a lot of stuff, don’t think you’re so special. Not your thing? How about: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Or: It takes one to know one?  I thought there was a moment of undeniable truth in the fable about Skunk, Musk Ox and Cabbage: He who smelt it, dealt it. You can imagine how that story went.

There were a couple of chuckles in Squids Will Be Squids and maybe a hilarity-fest for a small boy who likes fart jokes. Or a grown boy who likes booger humor. Or anyone who just enjoys the very mildly outrageous and slightly goofy and is willing to enter the Scieszka/Lane crazyverse for a while. If  you read this with some kids who think you are stuffy, hopelessly boring and humorless, they will get a marginally better opinion of you. Could be worth it.

Squids Will Be Squids (Picture Puffins)   Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith | Viking  1998

I Will Never NOT EVER Eat a Tomato – Lauren Child

Lauren Child is a wicked spirit from a world in which no grown-ups are allowed. She records the exploits of clever children in paintbox-bright collages of drawings, photographs, patterned paper maybe? and what looks like oil paint crayons. Her books and pint-sized characters are delicious–Clarice Bean is among my favorite utterly self-assured little bad girls. I Will Never NOT EVER Eat a Tomato, a Charlie and Lola book, is a triumph of art and imagination over picky eaters everywhere.

Charlie has this little sister Lola who crosses her arms over her chest and looks at him sideways. You can tell by the look she is one big NO. Lola is a “very fussy eater,” which is a challenge for Charlie when his parents ask him to give her dinner. (We assume the parents are too exhausted to parent the mini-dynamo. Or maybe they have power-player Wall St. jobs and don’t ever make it home before bedtime.) Charlie, though, has a few tricks up his sleeve to deal with an immovable object who only opens her mouth at the table to declare what she will not eat: carrots (for rabbits), peas (too green), potatoes, mushrooms, spaghetti, eggs, sausages, cauliflower, cabbage, baked beans, bananas, oranges, apples, rice, cheese, fish sticks–and NEVER tomatoes. Tough customer.

Ah, but Charlie is undaunted. He agrees she should never touch a single one of those things, even as he puts a bowl of carrots on the table. Lola calls him on it, just before he patiently explains that they aren’t carrots–they are orange twiglets from the planet Jupiter. The peas are incredibly rare green drops from Greenland that fall from the sky. The mashed potatoes are cloud fluff from the top of Mount Fuji. The fish sticks are mermaid snacks from the supermarket under the sea. And, according to Lola, those round red things she would like Charlie to pass to her are moonsquirters. Well, naturally. What did you think they were? Tomatoes?

You are very unsophisticated. Charlie is a genius. And Lola is practically a vegan by the end of the book–except for the fish sticks. It’s yummy. It could simplify melodramatic meals at your house, too. Serve it up right before a big salad with a side of whimsy and see what happens. Then go out and collect every loopy book of Lauren Child’s that you can find. She’s really really good. So are moonsquirters.

I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato (Charlie and Lola)   Lauren Child | Candlewick Press   2000

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.

Gawain and the Green Knight – Mark Shannon and David Shannon

I’m familiar with David Shannon’s hilarious, evil “David” books. No David! is the first of those and they star a bad little boy whose exuberance keeps him in hot water and his mother on repeat admonishing “No!” It’s so easy to see how this kid goes off the rails every time he moves that it is perfectly safe to read and enjoy the books with a kid–David is such a mess that even children can laugh at the trouble he gets himself into. So, I was curious to read a different sort of Shannon book, a collaboration between David Shannon, artist, and his brother Mark, writer, on one of King Arthur’s tales. Gawain and the Green Knight is for a slightly older but still unsophisticated crowd. The story of Gawain, the youngest of the Knights of the Round Table–and something of a kid brother–simplifies the rich world of Celtic myth and legend into a one-note quest that proves steadfastness and courage.

The illustrations are rich but rather dark. I liked the touch of ending a white text page with a small woven tapestry (painted) that depicts another visual element of the words on that page. Gawain is hesitant and tongue-tied until he impulsively takes the challenge of a mysterious Green Knight who appears in the midst of Arthur’s warriors. The knight is enormous and wagers that a man brave enough to strike him with an ax will not prevail. Being knights, only honor is at stake–the challenge is just yuletide sport. Being males, pointless violent stunts are irresistible, so the wager is on. Naturally, there is a catch. Gawain chops off the knight’s head and the knight picks it up and booms out the penalty. Gawain will have to travel to his Green Chapel and allow the knight his counter blow.

Complications, in the form of a fair lady who embroiders Gawain a protective sash and a magical couple and castle where Gawain spends the night before riding to the Green Chapel, allow Gawain to show his true mettle. It’s very high-minded with almost no blood and the good guys triumph in the end. Arthurian stories are marvelous and I would never hesitate to put one in front of a kid but I don’t know how much this one would captivate. I found it a little flat–possibly a chivalrous small boy would think it was exciting and cool.  Not a hapless mini-disaster-area like David Shannon’s anti-hero David, though. Put Gawain and the Green Knight in front of him and he’d probably spill purple grape juice all over it.

Gawain and Green Knight   Mark Shannon & David Shannon | G. P. Putnam’s Sons   1994

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic might as easily be named The Book of Lists. Julie Otsuka inscribes a library of research into a slim volume that is almost poetic in its evocative spareness. She tells the story of the Japanese “picture brides” who traveled by ship to the West coast at the turn of the last century to marry men who had sent handsome photographs and eloquent letters–not written by them and not depicting them. Reality was harsh. The sea voyage was hard to endure; their husbands were field workers, twenty years older than the photos, someone else entirely, house servants, not bankers. Their new homes were sacks in sheds at the edges of farms where they picked in the fields all day. Or bare bones servants’ lodgings at the back of the house or in one of the out buildings. Their wedding nights were closer to rape than romance; their lives were exhausting, unending labor. They washed and ironed in laundries, cooked and served in restaurants, escaped from brutal husbands to find work in the bawdy houses in California’s cities, filled the sleeves of their wedding kimonos with stones and waded into the Pacific.

The whole immigrant experience is encapsulated in words that make a slide show of images and impressions. Children are born, live or not, acculturate, lose the customs and the language, turn away from their families to become Americans. And then World War II comes, and Pearl Harbor, and the infamous reception centers are set up and the neat, hard-won homes, the established restaurants, the quiet, orderly presence of the Japanese is suddenly erased. The outrage in this book is palpable. In saying very little, it says everything. Line-by-line, layer-by-layer, Julie Otsuka builds a world of hope, despair, persistence, achievement and overnight devastation. When I first learned about the Japanese concentration camps in this country, many years after my “American history” courses in school, I was appalled. But it seemed so distant, so unimaginably backward, an aberration I couldn’t really comprehend. The Buddha in the Attic makes the whole ragged struggle of being an immigrant visceral, the deportation of an entire ethnic group to internment camps vivid and unforgivable.

It won’t take too many hours to read this small book but the high-definition cinema of its story will stay in your head for a long time.

The Buddha in the Attic   Julie Otsuka | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

Green – Laura Vaccaro Seeger

One of the most empowering gifts you can give to a child is the skill of paying attention, of noticing. A child’s context explodes when she notices the life around her deeply. Simple enjoyment of very small and enormously significant things multiplies exponentially. People who are aware are smarter, cope better, appreciate what is real and live richer lives. That’s why the paint box is better when it contains many hues, not just primary and secondary colors. Several shades of green, for instance.

Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s beautiful picture book Green is spare on language but overflowing with so many permutations of green that you will be fascinated and return to examine it again and again. Green contains 33 words (I counted) but you could spend hours lost in them, exploring the circumstances in each gorgeous picture that cause the green, that alter the shade, that contribute to the intensity. Green is characterized, embodied in a slow inch worm, incongruous on a zebra and wholly absent in the landscape around a snowman. Observation leads to discussion–which improves vocabulary, understanding of basic science, mastery of abstract concepts like fierce and faded, acknowledgement of complexity–how can green be khaki, which is almost brown, and lime, which is very yellow? There is a whole world in green–and in this book.

Clever cut-outs add to the magic by revealing butterflies and moths, inchworms,  a nightlight, a flower, and even adjectives made of reeds and splotches that, isolated in the cutout, form words. Give a kid something brilliant to contemplate and you honor the brilliance that is in that child. Green does that. It will wake up your half-dead imagination, too. I wish all books for children were this amazing and rewarding.

Green   Laura Vaccaro Seeger | Roaring Book Press   2012