The past few weeks have been prime reading time for me. I think it might be due to a combination of cold weather, great coffee, and a rich stash of books. I’m also finding that requesting titles from the Falmouth Library means that they do show up unexpectedly and have due dates—so they get bumped to the top of the list.
Good Prose, The Art of Non Fiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd is one of those titles that came recommended somewhere on the internet.This is a rewarding book that keeps delivering treasures in every chapter. The two authors have written stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing. It reveals “wordsmithing” as a way of life—and a very enjoyable one. It’s writing well about good writing.
Each author peppers his paragraphs with references to pieces of literature I actually am familiar with, and I am able to make the connections to their arguments. Their text is fully amplified, engaging and rich. My usually complaint about non-fiction is that a typical 300 page book could/should be reduced to a three page magazine article and be done with it. That is not the case with this book. Each chapter explores a topic of interest about writing, and I kept wanting more. Many nights, lights went out on David’s side of the bed and I found myself saying, “just one more chapter and I’ll hit the sack”. Potato chip reading… ahhhh!
So what makes this book so engaging and delicious? It’s an honest, authentic look at non-fiction writing, and it is full of useful advice. Both Kidder and Todd reveal the truth in the adage, “Writing is Rewriting.” I love the F. Scott Fitzgerald quotation and wish I had it on hand when I was teaching writing: “Rewrite from principle. Don’t just push the same old stuff around. Throw it away and start over.”
It’s also clear that writing is hard work and requires self-editing as well as an editor’s sharp, critical eye. The literary relationship that evolves between Tracy and Todd is a good story in itself…they’re exploring better ways to tell a story. So there are levels and layers of wordy goodness between these covers. If you like to read or like to write, you’ll love this book.
Good Prose also offers a voyeur’s peek into the business of publishing. How shocking to learn that 80% of the books published lose money. Kidder shares that it usually requires ten or more completed drafts and more than a year before one of his publishable books is born.
The reader witnesses the evolution of Kidder as a writer and the role that errors, gross and small play in his work. He pulls back the curtain and let’s us see the story behind the story and how does writing “happen”. Over the years, I have enjoyed Kidder’s other books, and this one helps me figure out why. It also gives me fodder to think about my own writing… and that’s always worthwhile.
There are a few more books that I devoured lately. The first is The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball. It’s a memoir of her experience farming in Essex, NY, the town next to where I spent my summers on Lake Champlain as a kid. This well educated, NYC girl falls in love with her soul mate who happens to be a devoted, persistent, tenacious farmer who lives his beliefs as he works the soil from daybreak to dark. He’s not all talk; he’s all action. The love story here is really about the love of the land and the community that supports this noble effort.
This memoir certainly takes away the shiny façade of “Isn’t farming fun”. The hard work and constant barrage of uncontrollable events often seems like the life of Job. Days are never ending. “To do” lists have to do with survival, not frivolities. The most significant lesson I learned from their experience is that the hardships of rigorous labor, loss, and self-doubt encountered are seen as the counterbalance to the joy, satisfaction, and appreciation of what is simple and good. It’s all part of a cycle.
Last, but not least is The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. This novel put me on an oceanic liner for a 21 day journey from Ceylon to England along with three young, unsupervised boys. It is Huck Finn with an international, contemporary twist, complete with coming of age revelations that are golden. Ondaatje recreates the perspective seen by children and allows the reader to make connections. I love this book; I thought about the characters after I put the book down each night and wondered what they were doing while I was asleep.
His writing is artful; I re-read many sentences just to hear them again. The author explores the consequences of adults behaving poorly, loneliness, the excitement of risk, love and camaraderie. We feel what it is like to be the outcast as well as in the “in crowd”. He captures it for us and puts it on a page.
I’m in the middle of two other books that could be game changers for me: More or Less by Jeff Shinabarger further pushes the boundaries of living with less and giving more away. It’s straightforward, not preachy and comes complete with “assignments” to put these words into action.
Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman, MD is yet another healthy diet book. It came highly recommended by one of my favorite students, so I dove in. So far it looks like a diet of practically no meat, a ton of vegetables and fruits, a lot of beans and no processed foods.
The author recommends abiding by the rules or six weeks before giving up. Not sure about this one…
Let me know what you’re reading. I love having my nose in a book.