Thursday, February 25, 2016

What happened to February?

My January special theme book was going to be The Scarlet Letter but my local library only has audio versions and the movie, so I found it on line, but reading The Scarlet Letter on a computer screen plainly sucks so I'm only on chapter IX...what is that, nine? And I only skimmed the Introduction so I'm already feeling like a cheat and a dropout. I'll get to it before the year ends.

At the start of this month, I read Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss, which I enjoyed without falling in love with. I don't blame the material. Sometimes I read like a dog eats. Could be kibble, could be filet mignon. I'm just going too fast to be more than simply satisfied by the experience of reading.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Shy kids and nerds, represent. How many introverts in the house tonight? This book will tell you a lot of things you already know about yourself. This might be empowering for you, if, like me, you know your needs but you sometimes feel stigmatized by the dominant cultural preference for extroversion.

Reading this book had a direct effect on the weekend I just spent on a film set, where I knew that the uncontrolled noise and exposure to other people's stress was going exhaust me. I unapologetically squirreled myself into hiding places and avoided small talk with the cast and crew. It was hard to resist the habit of pretending to be more extroverted than I actually am in order to fit in, but I was glad I had taken care of my energy levels when it was late in the day and we were shooting an emotional scene that needed all my emotional access, focus and commitment. Acknowledging and accommodating my introversion allowed me to serve the needs of the group in an effective way.

So, the book I read on set to help me hide from everyone was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It was a good quick read and a compelling world. The story centers on a young woman in a traveling Shakespeare troupe after the end of the world as we know it. Great premise, huh?

Most recently, I finished The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. Her short stories are like watercolors. The shapes start to make pictures, but before the pictures make plots the images dissolve back into impressions. She is a profound observer, and that combined with her sense of humor makes you feel like she's trusting you as an old friend, too old to be judging each other or impressing each other. Like a chosen sister. Some of the stories were mystifying and I felt like she was signaling to me in a dense fog. I wondered if she was too subtle for me at times and I just wasn't getting it, or if there wasn't anything to get -- if the mystery was the point.

4, 5, 6, 7. I'll be coming back for you, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Holy Catch Up, Batman!

Intrepid book friends.
I am behind on posting.
Now, I shall attempt to catch up.

1. January Theme Book! 1984 by George Orwell, actually completed on February 2 but we're all going to be gentle about deadlines here.

Laura, I must sincerely apologize. The reason this book was unavailable at the library was because I had it. I also returned it two days late, like some kind of garbage citizen.

But Laura, on the other hand I do not sincerely apologize because I saved you the agony of reading 1984, a book that lives strong on curricula everywhere in spite of being utterly pointless outside its position as "influential".  I think it just stays on there because no high school teacher has actually reread it since they were in high school. This book should be universally replaced by The Handmaid's Tale,  no question. Or almost anything else, frankly. I was desperate to get to the parts where Winston was tortured, which seems like the wrong feeling.  Fellow readers, those among you who have read 1984 - let's discuss.  I hated it with a passionate hate but really would love to find some value in my experience. Maybe I am giving George Orwell less credit than he deserves, and many of the things I found loathsome (i.e. the entire character of Julia) were part of his commentary.  I have to say, though, that it didn't feel that way.  Ultimately, in 2016, I am ready to read fictional dystopian insights more relevant than the tragic oppression of a middle aged British white guy.

2. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

I love reading books about the creative process. Love, love, love. And while I find myself more in the warm and gentle Liz Gilbert camp (Big Magic!), there were definitely insights to steal from Grand Dame Tharp. She keeps a special box for every project she works on! Full of inspiration and research and artifacts of the process! I'm stealing that for sure! Other insights - like, change your name to something interesting because she has always felt creative as a Twyla - feel less valuable.  She's also a little bit "there's a right way and a wrong way" in her approach to creativity, which connects less to my little Montessori heart.

3. Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
I bought this book for my artistic soulmate, Christian Libonati, for his February birthday. But he is a slow reader and I am a selfish gift-giver, so naturally I read the whole thing in its entirety before bequeathing it unto him.  What a useful book to have read at this exact moment of my life, where Filament is transitioning into a full-time gig and we are working hard to lay the foundation of our artistic culture and processes.  I've read management books, and I've read books about the creative process, but never before have I read a book about management in business where your chief output is a creative product.

I so admired the book's openness with the successes as well as the struggles of building Pixar, and while Pixar is obviously operating on a very different scale than my little theater company, a good deal of the insights were very relevant. The balance of financial and artistic leadership is a very challenging line to negotiate, and having a little peek into someone else's world was very helpful and inspiring.  Erika, is Pixar really as dreamy as Creativity, Inc. makes it seem?

4. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Bel Canto was an unexpectedly beautiful portrait of waiting, and of tedium in the most extreme of circumstances. Surprisingly funny, surprisingly tense, it's not a flashy novel but kinda gets inside your bones and works its way out.  Here is a passage that I loved unequivocally:

What a sense of humor one would need to believe that the woman you love is not in Tokyo or Paris or New York or Athens. The woman you love is a girl who dresses as a boy and she lives in a village in a jungle, the name of which you are not allowed to know, not that knowing the name would be particularly helpful in trying to find it. The woman you love puts her gun beside a blue gravy boat at night so that you can teach her to read. She came into your life through an air-conditioner vent and how she will leave is the question that keeps you awake in the few free moments you have to sleep.

The novel is inspired by a real life hostage crisis in Peru in the mid-90s, where a terrorist group held a group of diplomats and other dignitaries hostage for over four months, although the circumstances of Bel Canto are different, and the country in which it takes place is never named.  Patchett explores the relationships between the terrorists and hostages, and the little world they build together during their four months in a sort of shared captivity. Published in 2001 before 9/11, I definitely found my brain wandering to how the implications of the word "terrorist" have evolved in the last 15 years.

Bel Canto is a novel I would recommend without reservation, while simultaneously recognizing that it wasn't a novel that I loved with my whole heart.  I think that, on some fundamental level, it just wasn't for me. But I can see how it absolutely would be a beloved favorite for somebody with slightly different aesthetic sensibilities. It made me very glad to be doing this 50 books project, where I can commit to lovely gems like Bel Canto that might not have made it on my shortlist otherwise. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Request for Reasonable Accommodation

In January, I was going to read 1984. To be honest, no one asked me to read this book in school, so strictly speaking, there was no imperative. But I was also an American student at the turn of the century interested in politics and government and the X-Files and -- how have I never read this book?

My grand plan, however, fell apart when neither my library branch nor by boyfriend's bookshelf turned up the hard copy I needed before boarding a plane to Central America.

In the week leading up to vacation, I was desperate to think of a book I would want to read now, as an adult, that I should have in school. Chaucer came to mind, from a humanities unit. Descartes. Neither seemed very appealing for the beach. An Alexandre Dumas novel? In French? I actually did plow through most of Dickens after college,..

Then, Wednesday, I was at Manierre Elementary School for WITS, and my partner and I finished Junie B. Jones Loves Handsome Warren after five long weeks. Yes, Jakyla had done the reading, but I had followed along for every invented word and breach of syntax. Surely, this had to count.

Only on closer examination, it was high school, and there's no way I can claim to have needed to be enjoying Early Readers as a 16-year-old. But it's either this or completely failing the Fifty Books/Fifty-two Weeks Challenge right out of the gate. This is my official request for accommodation. Thank you.

Junie B., by the way. I do not understand her beloved status. I found her a grating mash-up of toddler and teen, quirkiness matched only by her base naivete. Give me Harriet the Spy, Matilda, Anne of Green Gables or even Angelica from Rugrats any day.

Friday, February 19, 2016

2/50: Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing

Tap Roots is Mark Knowles's examination of a uniquely American art form. Although it could only have developed here, in the cultural stew of the 19th century, none of its parent cultures originated here, and Knowles travels back across centuries and continents to look at each of the traditions that fed it. Having always heard that tap grew from the intermingling of Irish cloggers and free African Americans in the Five Points district, I learned more than I was expecting about Morris dancing and Indian dance.

Tap history is race history, and there is grim stuff in here. Some forms of tap came about as clandestine religious ritual, some as ways to mock slave owners to their faces. Knowles really digs into the different parts of slave culture in the Americas, from the West Indies to New Orleans to the Carolinas, and how each had somewhat different musical, religious, and physical traditions that were products both of the slaves' origins and of the new forces at work on them. (In places where Southern Baptism forbade dancing, for example, there had to be strict definitions of what exactly dancing was—so the tap steps from some regions avoid crossing the legs mid-step, as that would have constituted sinning.) The section on 19th century American theater involves so, so much blackface, with illustrations that will make you squirm if you're reading this on mass transit. Knowles discusses blackface a bit,, it's a rough topic, and there has to be at least another whole book to be written on its implications for American dance. I hope there's a book about dance as silent rebellion, too, because that stuff is way cool. In some slave cultures, tap (or its predecessor, patting juba) replaced talking drums as a means of communication. In others, dance (notably but not exclusively capoeira) helped slaves plan and train for resistance. And similar patterns appeared with Irish dance under British oppression. The degree to which dance is an assertion of identity in adversity is fascinating.

It's frustrating that, after this detailed examination of the diaspora, the "Conclusions" section still reduces some originating cultures to monoliths: if we're talking about different social classes and religious groups in the British Isles, we shouldn't talk about "people in Nigeria" as though they all behave the same way. "Conclusions" also includes a couple of really dubious assertions about how geography affects the development of dance. I'm sure geography does affect dance in certain ways. But to say that African dances tend to use counterclockwise turns because, in the southern hemisphere, the sun appears to travel from east to Really no. It does that everywhere. That is how planetary rotation works. I wish the whole section had been left out, because it weakens the rest of the text and makes me wonder whether other concepts have such wobbly "facts" backing them up.

This is niche history, to be sure. I'm researching a couple of writing projects related to vaudeville, and this was really useful for that. I also tap, and it's nice to know more about a medium that, comparatively speaking, is only just beginning to be documented—particularly the sometimes perplexing, always colorful nomenclature of steps. (Buzzard lope! Pigeon wing! Kabibble!) If you're looking for a general history of dance in America, this is probably not the place to start. But if you're into tap, this is a good read.

Friday, February 12, 2016

#1: The War on Alcohol

This isn't actually the first book I've read this year (though it's the first book that truly qualifies for this project, for reasons I might get into in a separate post).

Anyway. The War on Alcohol is Lisa McGirr's examination of Prohibition. It's less a straight history than a correlation of history to contemporary events. McGirr argues—persuasively—that Prohibition is the real cause of many aspects of modern-day American society, from the war on drugs to the composition of the major political parties to the prison-industrial complex.

Quite a lot of this was revelatory for me. I hadn't realized, for example, the degree to which Prohibition was a class war or a race war. Saloons were often the gathering places for blue-collar laborers, many of whom were recent immigrants, so big business saw a union-busting benefit in backing prohibitionary measures. Enforcement hit the poor as disproportionately as drug-law enforcement does today; some state laws even had deliberate loopholes to protect the private stashes of the well-to-do. McGirr mentions that when reformers surveyed the range of problems in poor areas, it was far easier to blame alcohol as the cause of those evils than it was to actually address poverty—which sounds depressingly familiar. Dry activists painted a melodramatic picture of a crime wave, but it was the Volstead Act that actually created the jump in crime, by criminalizing behaviors that had previously been acceptable. And for some reason my high school textbooks* omitted the fact that many municipalities actually paid Klansmen as vigilante enforcers of dry laws. Dry enforcement was beyond the means of a number of police departments, so cities and counties offered financial rewards to citizens who caught lawbreakers. In some cases that led to open partnerships between the police department, the churches, and the local Klavern. (I'm pretty sure that's a script waiting to be written.)

The book's title is not coincidental. Growing up during the Reagan war on drugs, I never knew that the philosophies underpinning that movement had their origins in Prohibition: again, the punishing of the poor for a symptom of poverty; the expectation that the federal government should interfere in private behavior; the assumption that crime was a vast societal problem; the imposition of an evangelical Protestant ethos on a pluralistic society. The current overcrowding of prisons and the execrable school-to-prison pipeline—both originated with Prohibition.

McGirr also discusses a central paradox of American society, one it had never occurred to me to examine:
Historians, political scientists, and other scholars have long noted the peculiar evolution of the modern American state, especially compared to modern western European states. The United States government is heavy on coercion, light on welfare. The American national state is both unique and contradictory—at once weak but interventionist, underdeveloped yet coercive. Not surprisingly, those paradoxical strains contributed to the oft-remarked love-hate relationship so many Americans have with their national government—at once proudly patriotic and fearful of Washington.

McGirr breaks down her discussion into different aspects of society, devoting chapters to sexual mores, race, commerce, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the penal state. It's an effective structure. The prose, unfortunately, is sometimes lumpen, with adverbs in distractingly odd places, faulty parallel structure, and wonky lists (one of which creates the construction "have gave"). Finishing the book took me longer than I'd expected, given the compelling subject: I kept stopping to make mental edits. This is an occupational hazard, though, and it's possible that non-editors won't be bothered by these quibbles of wording. And the history here really deserves to be read.

*Does this mean this book counts as one I should have read in high school? Not sure. But at least one of the books I'm not counting does qualify, so...

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Library of Souls: Miss Peregrin's Peculiar Children #3

Third in the series of Miss Peregrin's Home for Peculiar Children: The Library of Souls
Author: Ransom Riggs

I blew through this series over the last month and am very grateful for the recommendation. I would have to say I feel two very different ways about the final installation.

On the one hand, I neglected some actual adult work I needed to do in order to finish this book. It took the characters to some extremely compelling settings and it was a very exciting final conflict. Actually, now that I've used the word settings, I'm realizing that the major strength of the author might be in creating the images of the worlds that the children are visiting. There are several satisfying bad guys and the main hero of course finally comes into his powers. 

On the other hand, the final chapter is weak. I mean, look, a lot of YA literature is derivative but this felt like the author wrote the final battle and then had no idea how to get the characters home or resolve personal conflicts so he essentially wrote two endings using a GIANT deus ex machina. I like a DEM as much as the next guy, but they need to be used sparingly and this was amateurish. I won't give away any spoilers because I genuinely think a lot of you might read and enjoy these books, I'm just saying, don't expect the final chapter to be the best in the series. 

(Chelsea and any other readers with children, when they get to be age 11 or so, they might also really like these books)

Overall, I'm very happy I read the series, enjoyed the heck out of them and I rarely allow myself "beach reads" without trying to justify them but these were just damn fun. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Drunken Spelunker's Guide to Plato

The Drunken Spelunker’s Guide to Plato
Kathy Giuffre

I came across this little gem moments after I got my brand new library card from the Boise Public Library as celebration of officially becoming an Idaho resident.

For a brief semester during my freshman year of college, I became a history/political science double major because of Plato and his cave, so the incorporation of Greek philosophy was particularly attractive to me.
It tells the story of a small town girl, leaving for a slightly less small town somewhere near the Smoky Mountains. There she starts work at a local bar, The Cave, where she meets some eccentric and caring friends who eventually become her family. 

The language was beautiful, perhaps a tad ostentatious at times…as though Giuffre was trying too hard to link the narrative to the Greeks. Interspersed between main narrative scenes, the stories of Greek mythology and philosophy seemed to serve as  a metaphor for the events to follow. But, it often felt as though the events were contrived as a way to justify the use of the myth. As a result, it felt as though things simply happened to characters and fell away. I can’t share without spoilers—and there are certainly exceptions—but I wanted to see how those events or people or circumstances affected their future selves a little bit more than I did.

Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable book. A Southern charmer—and not just because it took place in the South, but because the storytelling made you feel like lounging on a wraparound porch, lazily swatting flies and sipping on sweet tea.

“That summer, I was fearless. This is the prerogative of the young. Later in life, you might have courage, which means doing things in spite of your fears. But never again will you really be without fear—flying about the world in wind-swept delight, close and closer to the sun, heedless of everything that lies below. Maybe it is only ignorance, but it has a remarkable resemblance to immortality, while it lasts.”

The Outsiders

The Outsiders
S.E Hinton

My pick for our January theme as I had somehow emerged from high school without ever having read it. Plus, it was due time that I stop pretending I know the “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” reference.

Hinton really sucker-punched me with this one.  In the first five pages, I knew that by the end of it, someone would die and that it would break my heart. For a 14-year-old (or, in Hinton’s case a 15-year-old), our protagonist had some pretty profound revelations about the world and its people. This passage in particular stuck with me:

“It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two difference worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.”

It was a quick read filled with tension and a sense of innocence that managed to also feel world wise. I would have gladly stayed in this world with these characters for many more pages. Though, I do wish I had read this about a decade ago—14-year-old me would have loved it something fierce. And, I could have probably knocked out a pretty decent literary criticism paper on this one.