mini-review · reflection · stuff I read

This is Water/Make Good Art

Summary from Goodreads:
Only once did David Foster Wallace give a public talk on his views on life, during a commencement address given in 2005 at Kenyon College. The speech is reprinted for the first time in book form in THIS IS WATER. How does one keep from going through their comfortable, prosperous adult life unconsciously? How do we get ourselves out of the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion? The speech captures Wallace’s electric intellect as well as his grace in attention to others. After his death, it became a treasured piece of writing reprinted in The Wall Street Journal and the London Times, commented on endlessly in blogs, and emailed from friend to friend.  Writing with his one-of-a-kind blend of causal humor, exacting intellect, and practical philosophy, David Foster Wallace probes the challenges of daily living and offers advice that renews us with every reading.

This is a very interesting speech and DFW brings up a number of things to think about. Unfortunately, it’s terribly sad knowing now that DFW took his life a few years after giving this speech. It makes some anecdotes and thoughts in This is Water very eerie.

Summary from Goodreads:
In May 2012, bestselling author Neil Gaiman stood at a podium at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts to deliver the commencement address. For the next nineteen minutes he shared his thoughts about creativity, bravery, and strength: he encouraged the students before him to break rules and think outside the box. Most of all, he encouraged the fledgling painters, musicians, writers, and dreamers to make good art.  This book, designed by renowned graphic artist Chip Kidd, contains the full text of Gaiman’s inspiring speech. Whether bestowed upon a young artist beginning his or her creative journey, or given as a token of gratitude to an admired mentor, or acquired as a gift to oneself, this volume is a fitting offering for anyone who strives to make good art.

In contrast, Gaiman’s speech is on a serious subject, but it gives a wonderful uplift.  Granted, this is for an arts college commencement – hence the emphasis on “good art” – but the message can be applied to almost any profession.  Choose what you like, and be passionate about it so your outcome is good and worthy of your effort (a way better commencement address than any I had to sit through).  The layout provided by Chip Kidd is a fabulous addition to Gaiman’s words (for those of us who have heard Neil read, you can hear his voice in your head). Definitely a book to own in hard copy.


For Boston

I had another poet lined up for today but after yesterday’s horrific pictures at the Boston Marathon I decided to circle back to Christina Rossetti.  “Remember” is a bittersweet little poem, posted here for those who lost their lives Monday.

Remember me when I am gone away,

         Gone far away into the silent land;
         When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day

         You tell me of our future that you plann’d:

         Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
         And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
         For if the darkness and corruption leave
         A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
         Than that you should remember and be sad.

reflection · stuff I read


Imagine you are ten years old and your older brother has been killed in a school shooting.  How would you understand?  How would you learn to cope or deal with your grief?

Now imagine that you also have Asperger’s syndrome.  It is already hard enough for you to understand how to interact emotionally with your peers; they don’t understand you and you don’t understand them.  How would you understand grief and loss?

In Mockingbird, this is Caitlin’s predicament.  She’s is very intelligent, reads very well and draws far better than most adults, but she has Asperger’s and her routine has been interrupted.  The most patient and understanding part of her world – her older brother, Devon – is gone.  Her school counselor tries to help her with both her regular therapy and with understanding grief.  For Caitlin, she has to understand both her own and others’ grief – a tall order for a ten-year-old who has trouble understanding empathy.  In a chance meeting on the playground, she meets a younger student who lost his mother in the shooting and she decides that she will be his friend.  When he mentions that his father needs “closure,” Caitlin becomes obsessed with the word and its meaning.

Mockingbird is narrated by Caitlin so we see the world through her eyes and her thoughts.  She likes absolutes, black-and-white drawings, so the unpredictable world of grief and loss – in many different shades – makes her anxious.  Caitlin loves language, the interplay of words (she also capitalizes certain words and phrases like one would proper nouns – Look At A Person, Heart – because these words are important to her).  She presses her father to finish Devon’s Eagle Scout project, a wooden chest (“chest” as an object and “chest” as in the human thorax become linked in her mind), which is linked to her favorite movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Devon’s nickname for her, Scout. 

Mockingbird is a wonderful novel both for the story told within the pages and the character who does the narrating.  Caitlin has a great voice and Kathryn Erskine drew on her own experience with her daughter to flesh out Caitlin’s behaviors.  In an afterword, Erskine noted that she wanted to write a book about recovery, kindness, and understanding.  Erskine lives in Virginia and experienced the aftermath of the 2007 VTech campus shooting.  She has steeped Mockingbird in kindness and understanding; it is Caitlin’s unique version of kindness, but it comes from the heart.


2011 – to set or not to set reading goals?

In thinking about reading (and blogging) for 2011, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do any challenges this year.

I’ve come to realize they distract me.  I think and worry and fret far more about what I need to read for a challenge than what I actually read.  This gets worse when I have greater than one challenge going on at the same time.  I finished one challenge (Women Unbound) but had trouble finishing the other (The Complete Booker) and I only made minimal progress on my projects.

So I think I’ll just do one challenge (kind of one and a half).  I’d like to work on The Complete Booker Challenge 2011 – it would help make a decent amount of headway on my Booker Project.  I’ll probably start with the “Pix-a-Mix of Six” (read six Booker winners) and it might upgrade to the “A Booker’s Dozen” (read twelve winners or nominees from the short- or long-lists).  I’ll need to get a challenge post up for that one.  I’ve also signed up for the Goodreads Challenge – which is simply a goal to read a certain number of books.  Goodreads makes it really easy to track that with the stats page so I signed up with the goal of reading 100 books this year.  I’ve not made a great start what with the mess of moving and all.  One hundred books in a year is like my personal glass ceiling, somehow.

I slowly started accepting review copies from publishers this last year (well, just HarperPerennial/Harper Paperbacks, really).  I didn’t go overboard (thank goodness) but I haven’t been very good at getting things read when I need to for publication dates.  So I need to work on that.  I also have to pay attention to what I ask for because sometimes you get what you ask for; I requested a review copy of the new Christopher Isherwood diaries never realizing for one minute that it was going to be quite thick (and, in the manner of diaries, not terribly “readable”).  So I must keep a better head on my shoulders (I apologize to Harper for that one, it’s going to take me a bit to get that one read).

I also need to work on a few more of my projects – especially the Nobel and Best American ones – because the projects are really my pets.  They cover a nice cross-section of literature without a great deal of cross-over (there really isn’t much, from what I’ve found).

So, in summary, my Reading Goals for 2011:
1) Only sign-up for “real” challenge: The Complete Booker 2011
2) Write a sign-up post for The Complete Booker 2011
3) Be smarter about review copies
4) Work on my projects

Bring it, 2011!

parents · reflection · thanks

Happy New Year, happy new house!!

Hello 2011!

Hello new house!!

I spent my New Year’s holiday moving from my old, poorly managed condo (seemed great when I bought it 7 years ago, but no…) to a zero-lot line (for those who don’t have this legal designation it’s like a duplex that you own).  I closed on the purchase December 30, the movers came December 31, and, whew!  It was crazy for a little while.

I’m working on getting a blog 2010 review post done, a blog 2011 goals post done, one more book review from 2010, and a post about the new house.  That new camera got a workout, I tell ‘ya.

Happy reading in the new year!  Many thanks to my parents who helped out TREMENDOUSLY with the move (story about my mom and the kitchen later).

Banned Books Week · Booker Project · I read Banned Books · Reasons I am smarter than most of humanity · reflection · stuff I read · too many books

The Satanic Verses

I started reading Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses last September for BiblioBrat‘s Banned Books Challenge.  I started reading during the last week of the challenge, which was busy, busy, busy on its own, so I only got about 150 pages read before October took over and The Satanic Verses wound up at the bottom of the reading pile.  Now that September has returned, bringing with it Banned Books Week and the news that some crazy people want to burn Korans to punish Islamic fundamentalists ( because that’s totally going to show them ), it was appropriate for me to fish The Satanic Verses back out of the pile and finish it off.

Rushdie fully expects the reader to suspend belief right from the last line of the first paragraph:

Just before dawn one winter’s morning, New Year’s Day, or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky. (p 3)

Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha are the miraculous sole survivors of an act of terrorism and wash up on the beach of England.  Each begins to display characteristics representative of an otherworldly being – one displays a halo, the other a pair of horns – setting off a story of acceptance and forgiveness interspersed with commentary on tolerance, faith/doubt, megalomania, and identity.  Gibreel and Saladin form the frame narrative as we learn each man’s history and as they try to piece their lives back together in the wonderfully titled section “Ellowen Deeowen”.  Gibreel (as the incarnation of the archangel Gibreel) develops visions of the prophet Mahound at the time of his revelations in Jalilia (an interpretation of the life of Muhammed in Mecca) as well as those of a modern Indian peasant girl, Ayesha, who moves an entire village to walk to Mecca – through the Arabian Sea – based on the belief in her revelations from the archangel.

There are many character and narrative threads in The Satanic Verses and they don’t all start to come together until late in the novel.  This is a novel to be savored and pondered with wonderfully evocative imagery.  There are also many “doubles” in this novel – two Hinds, two Mishals, two or three Ayeshas (depending on how you count), Gibreel himself and Gibreel the archangel, and a Salman (who might mirror the author depending on how you look at it) – so you must also read The Satanic Verses closely.

This is a controversial novel, there is no getting around that.  When the prophet Mahound issues a proclamation from the archangel that women are to be sequestered, a madam comes up with the idea to have her twelve girls take on the personalities of Mahound’s twelve wives; the brothel receives a boost in business from the scheme but the brothel is eventually shut down and the prostitutes and collaborators are executed.  Because the novel uses the life of Muhammed as a basis, the idea that prostitutes are imitating the Prophet’s wives can be offensive to some.  Do you want to know what I think?  Those people don’t have to read The Satanic Verses, same as people who don’t like to see novels about the life of Jesus Christ that depict him doing un-Christlike things don’t have to read those.  A novel isn’t real, just like any historical novel using the Tudors as basis isn’t any more real just because it uses King Henry VIII as a main character.  Some events will be made up for storytelling purposes.  No one is forcing you to read it.

The novel also brings the issue of faith and doubt to the fore with the visions of Mahound and Ayesha the peasant.  How is someone believable when he or she claims to be the mouth of the archangel and brings revelations from God?  What do you do when the prophet suddenly retracts a previous statement, claiming it came from an “evil” source?  This is the controversy over the so-called Satanic Verses, a sura attributed to Muhammed that affirmed prayer to three old female polytheistic deities from the regions around Mecca but later retracted as the work of Shaitan (the devil).  Since the archangel only reveals information to a prophet, never to anyone else, how do we know if the revealments are the actual Will of God?  It requires faith, same as the village that follows Ayesha the peasant on a pilgrimage to Mecca, on foot, through the Arabian Sea; Ayesha affirms that the sea will part for them and the faithful will walk across the seabed; there are believers and there are doubters.  Like Doubting Thomas of the New Testament, does one need proof of the Divine to make the leap of faith?

The Satanic Verses is much more than just a book that pushes buttons for the sake of pushing buttons.  If those buttons set you off, then perhaps you ought not to read this book.  If you do read, look beyond those hot-buttons for the journey of Gibreel and Saladin; it’s a crazy ride and, ultimately, a very satisfying one.