Thursday, December 29, 2016

The End

Time goes still during the holidays, when I take my place at one end of my parents' couch with a book in my lap and try to to tune out the sound of the TV so I can be in my daddy's company while I read. Between Christmas and New Year's Day I can effectively dodge all responsibilities and ignore email. My only pastime between books is to tentatively poke the edges of resolution-ish thought bubbles and brace my gut against currents of regret for the failures of the year gone by. This, to me, is a successful vacation.

I'm enjoying the synchronicity of the books that have fallen into my hands here at year's ebb. Santa via mom via brought me Moonglow, the new Michael Chabon book. The protagonist is a gruff old man with an engineering mind, and the dominant themes are mortality and legacy. The blind whimsy of a holiday book exchange brought me Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which is about basically the same things and the same guy. The book gods want me to make peace with the saturnine, with the collective grandfather, with Chronos. Maybe they're letting me know, "hey, your life could be worse, you could be a dead old man." Touché, book gods, tou-ché.

Some necessary words on one of the best novels of 2016. Moonglow is peak Michael Chabon. It is funny and beautiful, both specific and universal. Chabon is clever, imaginative and virtuosic, but not to the point of stealing focus from the story to shine the light on the author. This is a particularly impressive feat, given that he himself is a character in the story, or maybe this is the key to the effect: the presence of the author character within the text (slightly doofy) is a sleight of hand that distracts the reader from the workings of the master creator shaping the story.

The last book I'll read this year was a Christmas gift from my dear friend Peter John Still, sound designer, mystic, linguist -- a kind, curious, all-the-way-odd duck. His wide-ranging mind has many passions, and I'm fortunate that my interests overlap with his in some fringe territory where few people care to dig in deep. Call this zone of our friendship's Venn diagram "comparative esoteric spiritual poetics". So this book he found is called The Dawning Moon of the Mind: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts. This classical scholar from England has re-interpreted the carvings within a particular Egyptian pyramid, refracting new light around our understanding of ancient spiritual belief and practice, the uses of language, the relationship of the word with the natural world, and the associations among humankind's collective identity formations and the cosmos. Let's just say it's not a fast read. Also, with very little reference in my understanding of the subject, it's hard for me to know what of this text is solid scholarship and what is just cool-sounding made-up stuff. But maybe this is an appropriate frame to work within when you're reading a text about religious poetry!

Happy 2017, readers. I hope we all do great things in the coming year, or at least read some great ones.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A month and a half to redeem itself

Okay, 2016.

I surrender.

My life went kablooey and then the country went kablooey. I went from "What the hell am I going to do now?" to "What in the actual hell?"

So, I read one book last month. My husband (recently estranged) had asked for the apartment back after two months of separation wherein he lived on other people's couches. And so I went to live with a friend in the valley, who is a miraculous human being, and put me up for the whole month in an actual guest bedroom with a door and a window and a closet and bed. And a cat even. I mean, this is a quality friend.

I have spent the past three months in a semi-fugue state, where eating and sleeping were either too much or none, not one invoice I issued at my day job was correct the first time, and I had no attention span or ability to focus at all. Reading was not. Only podcasts. Except one book, which was Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl. My host with the guest room and cat also is a writer and he has a fantastic library. And I chose this garbage from his shelves. But it works, because it was basically the book equivalent of junk food that you feel gross for eating and doesn't even taste good, which kind of makes sense given my situation. (note: I am a fan of her show, still, even after reading her dumb book.)

Hope you all are finding your way to the end of this year with books in hand. Let's read as much as we can before they start burning them.

Monday, September 12, 2016

SNL Superfan

14. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
15. Live from New York by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales

I'm a lifelong fan of SNL, diehard even in lean years and if I really examine my language patterns, I quote the show unconsciously and regularly. These were my fun vacation books and they were everything I hoped.

Amy Poehler is disarmingly honest about the struggles of midlife as well as what a tough badass she is. She does not wallow but she gets into raw things like a really recent divorce. It's not as funnily written as Bossypants, it has more of a serious tone, but it's in the same category as that--biographic, honest and pretty darn funny.

The backstage gossip of Live is fantastic. What a bunch of dramatic weirdos! Such good stories about every chapter of SNL. The one caveat I will give the book is that the authors are clearly boomers who absolutely worshipped the original cast and think everyone else is a little bit less. So when they insert their personal opinions rather than just letting the cast speak for themselves, it's pretty obviously weakens the book. However, I would highly recommend the book if you like some showbiz inside stories. Great stuff.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Oh hi there. Remember me? I remember you. I come visit and lurk and read about what you’ve been reading. It’s good to see you.

Sometimes in my life I go for long, long periods of time without reading. I don’t like those times, which is why I wanted to do this project. A little ambition. A little accountability. In the past, my not-reading is usually because I get busy and lazy, and in the free time I have I don’t make reading a priority. 

But it’s been weird these past few months, because I’ve really wanted to read. I’ve been reading a lot. A chapter here and there. Or holding a book in my lap and staring past it into the middle distance. Or carrying them in my bag everywhere I go where the only thing that absorbs them is the muscles in my neck and shoulder. But — and it’s a weird feeling and I don’t know how to explain it — it’s like my brain has been too full to fit anything else.  Like the words bounce off my eyes because there are too many other words inside my head to fit anymore.  

So here is what has taken over my brain. It’s personal, but hopefully tastefully so. I just want to share it here, I suppose. My parents got divorced this year after 38 years together. They separated one month and one day after my own wedding, and the divorce was filed the morning after my younger sister got engaged. When you’re little and your parents get divorced, people tell you that your parents love you so much and it’s not your fault. When you’re in your thirties and your parents get divorced, people tell you that you probably saw it coming though, right? 

(Sidebar: I mentioned that to a mentor of mine and he looked me very kindly and earnestly in the eyes and said “Your parents love you so much. It’s not your fault.” and I cried into my coffee.)

And of course there are more terrible things that can happen. Everybody is alive. Everybody is still speaking. But it’s been a lot. And, honestly, it’s been a lot more emotionally challenging than I expected it to be. So I have been grateful for stories and for imaginative worlds to climb into, although those have largely taken the form of TV and movies of late.

Some things that have made it through my brain cloud have been:

  • Cheryl Strayed’s tiny beautiful things, a collection of advice columns from her Dear Sugar days. I love Cheryl Strayed, and this book was a perfect nightstand treat. Easy to read in small pieces or long meditative chunks.
  • The BFG for the seven millionth time because Roald Dahl serves the function in my life that the Little House series serves in Jackie’s.
  • One whose title is lost to my brain that was a sort of self-help book for adults whose parents are getting divorced. My husband ordered it for me and I plowed through it on his kindle. It was like reading somebody’s terrible journal, but it was quite literally the only available, still-in-print book of its kind that we could find. It did provide me with a bit of kinship.
  • Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, the perfect primer to my first foray into graphic novels, immediately followed by Alison Bechdel's utterly stunning and perfect Fun Home.
  • All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which was like a beautiful beacon of light. I can only describe my experience like this: Marie-Laure’s father makes her a puzzle box every year for her birthday - a contraption with secret keyholes and twists and invisible seams. In one scene, Marie-Laure solves the puzzle box and finds two chocolates inside. She pops both of them unceremoniously in her mouth at once.  Reading the book was like opening one of Marie-Laure’s father’s puzzle boxes. It felt as though it had been lovingly crafted as a gift just for me. And the chocolate inside is delicious, but almost irrelevant compared to the box itself. It is the box that should be savored; the chocolate can be eaten two at once, ravenously.  I read 530 pages in three days, which is probably the same amount that I’ve read the whole rest of the year combined. It was the best feeling.

I need some new recommendations now. Books that are lyrical and lovely, literarily satisfying but not intellectually dense. Books that are good company. Share away - I value your expertise!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Little House on the Stress Reading

Books 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12/ 50

Farmer Boy
By the Shores of Silver Lake
The Hard Winter
Little Town on the Prairie
These Happy Golden Years

I don't really think rereads should count but this will be known as the 12 weeks of my life that were so stressful that a critical release became keeping a Little House book close at hand.

I've read all of them at least six times a piece (if not way more) so I can keep one of these next to the bed and scan a chapter while half asleep. Low commitment reading at it's finest.

Between planning/throwing two fundraisers, submitting three grants, designing two separate products to be delivered at the same time, planning/executing my sister's bachelorette party/bridal shower, actually having the wedding, and traveling cross country in a truck, my brain is a fried egg. Therefore I defer to Laura Ingalls Wilder for comforting chapters about holiday meals, sewing Christmas stockings and the big spelling bee at school.

Simpler times.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Summer reading

I have just completely lost the plot on this project. I'm not even sure where my book count stands. (There are several I have read and not yet discussed here. In terms of total books read this year, I'm pretty sure I'm on pace, or even ahead of it. In terms of qualifying books, though—since I'm excluding rereads and the books I copyedit for work—I'm laughably behind.) Anyway. I was on a ponderous-history kick through the gray months of early spring, until a book about the Nazi doctors got to be too much. Then I copyedited a bunch of books about business, which is also depressing, in a different way.

Then I found a Judith Krantz book (Princess Daisy) on the Noyes Art Center book exchange shelf, and I picked it up, because a) I was desperate for something light and b) I thought I remembered that one of my artistic heroes, David Foster Wallace, used to include Krantz in his fiction curriculum. (I just looked up that curriculum again. No Krantz. But he did use a lot of commercial fiction in the same vein,, honestly, I can't call this anything except a beach read.) So yeah, objectively, this is ridiculous. There's a polo-star playboy who has a Polish nickname despite being the son of Russian aristocrats (one of whom is herself named Titiana, which...Tatiana? Titania? Nope, we're going with Titty-ana) who retain their fortune during and after the Soviet Revolution. There's a movie star who's discovered in a high school play and has an Oscar within five years. There's a brain-damaged secret twin. There's an evil half-brother whose comeuppance, never fully explained, happens essentially offstage, and whose death, also offstage, may or may not be a suicide, but since he has never shown one whit of remorse it sort of seems like more of a hunting accident. There are elaborate sex scenes between characters you barely hear from again. It's almost defiantly un-literary. The adverbs string you along bafflingly, blindingly, brilliantly, and the metaphors are un-parseable (seriously: they work at a passing glance, but fall to pieces under analysis). And yet I flew through this preposterous thing. Functional escapism. I dunno.

I went from there to Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's goof on the apocalypse. Several blurbs mentioned Douglas Adams, which made me a bit wary (I liked the Hitchhiker's Guide books when I read them as a teenager, but since then I've encountered a lot of wannabe imitators and have learned that there's a certain style of forced absurdity that is just not my thing). Fortunately, though, this is genuinely funny. I suspect there are a lot of people in this group who have already read it, so synopsis isn't necessary, and the revelation that it's funny will be met with a resounding "Duh." I'm curious whether anyone has listened to the audiobook (evidently very well cast); I spent a lot of the book envisioning my ideal cast, particularly for the central angel and demon, both of whom rank among my favorite characters I've encountered in months. I did, in the wake of this group's recent posts, enjoy the nod to 1984 in the closing pages:
And if you want to imagine the future, imagine a, imagine a sneaker, laces training, kicking a pebble; imagine a stick, to poke at interesting things, and throw for a dog that may or may not decide to retrieve it; imagine a tuneless whistle, pounding some luckless popular song into insensibility; imagine a figure, half angel, half devil, all human...
Slouching hopefully towards Tadfield...
And just yesterday I read Tom Hart's graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning, about the sudden, unexplained death of his daughter, just shy of her second birthday. It''s a tough book to put into words, and I expect that if you're the parent of a young child it would be damn near unreadable. It's as raw and honest about grief as anything I've read, using visual language for the moments where words fall down. You want to read it all in one sitting, but at the same time feel as though you should be taking months to process it. I'm certain I'm going to have to come back to this one.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Plane rides and head trips

I went to Canada with my in-laws.
Sounds like the set up for a joke, but it really happened. Anyway, much reading ensued.

Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name
This is the second in her four-volume series about the complicated friendship of two women. I read the first one on a friend's recommendation, and then she lent me this second one and I took it because she really liked this series and she said this book was her favorite of the four. I have a hard time getting over Elena Ferrante's style. Remember in creative writing class "show not tell"? Elena Ferrante loves to tell, tell, tell. It gets very monotonous, even when her characters are lively and there's lots of soapy intrigue.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
A short book on the subject of spirituality before, during and after mid-life by a Franciscan priest who has done a lot of comparative inquiry into themes relating to adult developmental psychology across different spiritualities and disciplines. I read it because it was recommended by the founding instructor at the acting studio where I take scene study class. It's a nice little book, and a good reminder of things I've already read in other places -- from Joseph Campbell, Ken Wilber, Jung, Maslow, Pema Chodoron... However, now that I'm deeper into the complexity of mid-life, I have (obviously) a different perspective on the journey, so it was useful and reassuring to come back again to the subject.

C.G. Jung, Dream Analysis: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-1930
A long book of transcripts from classes Jung gave in English to a small group of students. I think it's cool to be able to read someone like Jung without translation, because it seems like so many of these great thinkers use words in very specific ways that get distorted in the translation process. Plus, there's an informality to this text that makes it really accessible. My husband bought this other book by Jung that I just couldn't get into at all because it was so academic.
My therapist comes from a Jungian-influenced school, so he mentioned this book in one of our sessions. Though I don't think there's a "right" way to relate to dreams, I have always been curious about them, and I have had some helpful breakthroughs by sharing my dreams with my therapist, so it was interesting to get some more perspective on Jungian theory and practice. I also often read this book in bed before going to sleep, so the dreams in the book influenced my own dreams, and actually also seem to have influenced my husband's dreams, even though he never opened the book once. Curiouser and curiouser. Maybe there's something to this collective unconscious thing after all.