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Nose In A Book- December 2014

The less time I waste on line, the more books I read. Gee whiz–how surprising! My selections have been eclectic, and I’ve been quite happy with my nose in a book. Here’s is the run down:

1. Up Jumps the Devil by Michael Poore

The devil is alive and well and moves forward and backward in history throughout this book. I’m totally engaged and can’t wait to see what happens next. The main character is, indeed, the devil dba Johnny Scratch, who is smart, compassionate and much nicer than I remember him from Catholic school. This devil is more than just an anonymous evil force, he’s a character. He has sassy conversations with God and criticizes God’s choices. He falls in love and gets dumped. He gets frustrated with stupidity. And he has a code that governs his super powers. The author’s imagination allows the devil to mingle with Ben Franklin, Pocahontas, all kinds of soulful musicians as well as being fully present in contemporary society. Poore is masterful with his creativity as well as his craftsmanship as a writer. My husband and I are reading this book chapter by chapter simultaneously, and we both find the point of view to be captivating and thought provoking. It’s a red hot winner (that was awful, sorry… mortal sin!)

2. Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Ariana Huffington

The publisher sent me a copy of this book to review, and I confess, I did approach this title with some negative attitude. First of all, how many books do I or anyone else need to read about achieving success without destroying your life? Secondly, why do celebrity writers think they have so much wisdom to share? Well… I was wrong. This book does have useful information, especially the chapters about self-care in the midst of chaos. Huffington takes a careful look at the price we pay for success and questions whether, indeed or not, it is success when one loses oneself in the process. She encourages meditation, yoga, getting ample sleep, and paying attention to one’s own inner barometer. Her writing includes references to serious medical research and is well documented. She also incorporates the ideas of the Greek and Roman masters and other Great Thinkers from around the world in her writing. It was an interesting read. The sections that bored me were easily skimmed, and I was quickly re-engaged and underlining my book. I made many connections to my yoga and meditation practice, and her chapters on unplugging and charitable giving confirmed what I already knew but appreciated the validation. It’s the type of book that after you read once, you keep it nearby and revisit it when needed. It is also perfect for gift giving.

3. Your Fathers, Where Are They And The Prophets Do They Live Forever by Dave Eggers

I can never remember this title and call it “Eggers’ Fathers and Prophets”. Eggers addicts know exactly what I mean. What I love and respect about this book is that it always keeps me off kilter and questioning everything. It makes me think, like problem solving, but better. The characters are weird, the plot is bizarre and yet, I couldn’t put this book down. Eggers ruffles feathers and the whole bird. This work reminds me of early Chuck Palahniuk’s writing, minus the body fluid excesses. Eggers chronicles the life of a man who is questioning the values of contemporary American society. He tries desperately to make meaning and find justice. At first we think he’s just another deranged character stuck in ennui, and then we start to root for him. Not everyone will drawn to this novel, but I found it exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Some Eggers books I like, some I don’t. This one was worth the work to make it from cover to cover.

4. The Story of Rose: A Man and His Dog by Jon Katz

I love a good story about animals and spent some time earlier this year reading Thornton Burgess, Beatrix Potter, as well as  modern day Tom Ryan’s Following Atticus. I’m always curious to see how writers present the animals, make them come alive on the page and, hopefully, not just sound like humans covered in fur. That’s why I appreciated Katz’s The Story of Rose. Rose is a hard working farm dog, and the story is told from her point of view. The reader sees what she sees through her eyes. She has her struggles, and we are right beside her observing the world through her senses, feeling the struggles, and appreciating the determination she has every day from morning through night. It a very good read. I would have loved to read it aloud to my kids when they were little. It is a joy to read as an adult.

5.  Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health  by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

This is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve read in years. The authors successfully show the value in analyzing health issues as they affect both humans and animals. Crossing species lines and sharing information reveals all kinds of connections and possibilities that would not be noticed if one only focused on an individual species. The writing is superb: both well researched and written so well that I enjoyed the language as well as the content. This is another book that I bought five copies of to give as gifts. I kept finding interesting sentences that I read aloud to my husband… that led to entire paragraphs and pages… and finally I got him his own copy of the book.

I’m collecting books to read in 2015.  It’s like making a list and checking it twice, only to ignore the list and enjoy the thrill of a serendipitously enticing book. I will keep you posted and hope you find yourself lost in many delicious books this New Year.

Remainders

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Every once in a while there’s a book that I’m afraid to read, but I know I should read it. Usually they contain some sort of horrible behavior that will give me bad dreams for a long time. Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder, is one of those books that I have been avoiding since it was published in 2009.

I had read, totally respected, and enjoyed several other Kidder books: House, Among Schoolchildren, and Mountains Beyond Mountains. What kept me from Strength in What Remains was the story of genocide in Burundi and Rwanda 1994-2008.

I was mistaken in avoiding this book, because although it tells the story of man’s inhumanity to man and the unspeakable atrocities that took place, it is just as much a story of one man’s ability to survive under these horrific circumstances. Deo is this man, and Kidder makes him come alive in every paragraph, every sentence, every picture that the reader creates in his/her mind.

This is a book I could not put down. I started it on Saturday and finished it on Sunday morning. Deo suffers greatly, and yet is able to push through the pain, the misery, the loss of his old life, and the trauma in the new life. The reader sees the battle to survive in war-torn Africa but also sees the desperate struggle to survive in New York City with two hundred dollars in Deo’s pocket, unable to speak English, and vulnerable to every sort of vermin the City has to offer. Both experiences create desperate, debilitating, unforgettable memories that may fade, but never go away. They haunt him like shadows in a darkened hallway forever.

Reading this book certainly put life in perspective for me. It presented struggles that were real and traumatic. It shows hope build and then be dashed. These are stories that were difficult to tell, but needed to be spoken, and most importantly, needed to be heard. Kidder is a wise, articulate, compassionate writer. He tells Deo’s story, and we can’t put it down.

 

Green Sprouts

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Some spring days try to fake me out into thinking it’s summer. That has happened recently. The sun shines brightly on the deck, the chairs look warmed and cozy, and there’s an ever so gentle breeze that bends the trees. It looks like it’s perfect for an afternoon with a book and a lemonade.

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However, once out there, my feet are cold, I need a sweater, and I’m saying “Screw the lemonade, I need some hot black coffee.” So having donned woolen socks and sweater, grabbed a cup of steaming java, I persist in moving the chair around the deck to catch the most direct rays of the sun. Yes, I know, I’m pushing it. Jumping the shark or something like that. But I do long to bask in the sun with a good book… it will happen, just with layers for awhile.

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Today a walk to the beach was truly an aerobic exercise in staying vertical against the wind. It was “refreshing”— ok- it was nippy, and I walked fast because if I stood still, I’d complain more. At WoodNeck, the windsurfers were out in full glory. Sails, black suits, full beards and huge smiles. One energized 60+ year old said the water was 50 degrees and the air was 50 degrees, so that makes it 100. I bitched about nothing after that.

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It’s true that the daffodils have bloomed and the azaleas and forsythia are full color. Periwinkle and all types of short wild flowers have started to open. Spring is really happening, just a little late and a little slower than usual.

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I’ve also noticed that I’ve got a couple of “anniversaries” that are happening right about this time. I’m marking the beginning of my fourth year of retirement from teaching at Bentley University. This is the first year that I was completely unaware of semesters, final exams and last day of classes. I’m having a blast doing exactly what I want, when I want to. The freedom is exhilarating and my list of “want to do’s” grows each day—in a good way. I’ve had the opportunity to read from my stacks of collected books as well as raid the library for some unexpected delights. I love the lack of curriculum and the full range of opportunities.

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On a similar note, I’m celebrating my second blogiversary of http://www.yarnsista.com. Two years of writing generated 99 posts, almost 6000 views and a tremendous amount of fun and satisfaction for me. It’s a place where I can write about my passions: the Cape, my life, my books, my fun with fiber and anything else that captures my attention. Taking photographs has been a new skill to work on. The iPhone camera is a blessing. It makes learning by trial and error plus lots of practice very attainable.

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I also just celebrated my first year of doing yoga. Now that is a very big deal. With the help of many compassionate, wise teachers, I have begun my practice and continue to expand it. My back no longer hurts me; I can move without aches and pain; I’ve lost weight and am much healthier than ever. All of this is exceptionally good news because I’m about half way to 122 years old, and I’d like to be flexible and balanced right up to the last breath. Three yoga classes and one Pilates class per week should help me get there.

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So all of this spring/rebirth/new growth stuff is working. I have no complaints and am looking forward to it all. Life is good.

 

Nose in a Book: January 2014

The New Year has added fuel to my yearning to burn through some terrific books that have been waiting all too patiently for me. It has been almost two years that we’ve done away with television and cable, so there’s more time to get lost in books.

My current books in progress are quite an eclectic collection:

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling  audio book from audible.com

Moby Dick by Herman Melville, the Norton Critical edition

Manage Your Day to Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind  edited by Jocelyn K. Glei

The Last Elf by Silvana De Mari

I’m sure that all four aren’t are anyone’s college syllabus, and I love the variety and experience each is providing.

First, The Casual Vacancy is a J.K. Rowling book for grown ups that I struggled with when I had the hard copy in my hands. Nothing seemed to stick– not the characters– not the plot– not the book. I put the book down and decided to “let it go”. The plot thickens: my daughter Kate gave me a subscription to audible.com for Christmas. I hungrily grazed over the long list of possibilities and started my wish list. I put The Casual Vacancy on it because I just couldn’t believe that I couldn’t engage with that book. This was the author who kept me and half the universe mesmerized with Harry Potter. Maybe the audible format would change my perception of the book. I hadn’t used books on tape/cd’s/etc before and thought it would be a good experiment.

Well, I’m hooked. I downloaded the text, plugged in my ear buds and asked the rest of the world to leave me alone as I listen. Maybe it’s the lack of distractions or the newness of the toy, I don’t know. I’m now three fourths of the way through the book and want to see what happens next. I’m not sanctioning the novel as great literature, but it’s an enjoyable, adventure into the life of a small town with many degrees of dysfunctional characters. I listen while I knit and can manage to multi-task and do justice to both endeavors. I plan to listen to one book a month this way.

The next book is a tome that has been on my “to read” list for years: Moby Dick.  My Norton Critical Edition dates back to 1967; I was in high school from 1966-1970. The pages are yellowed, it cost only $1.95, and it contains not only the novel, but reviews, letters by Melville, analogues and sources as well as criticism. It’s a megillah and remained unread until this month when a friend of mine, Stan, mentioned that he was reading it. We volunteer together at the cat shelter and every time I saw him, he had something interesting to say about Moby Dick. He talked about the allure of the sea, the whaling industry, New Bedford, Nantucket, and crazy characters. Living so close to it all was another reason to jump in. Before I knew it, I was turning the pages and scribbling notes in the margins. Stan and I continue our discussions about the book and the narrative comes alive. I find myself reading and re-reading sentences that resonate; there are many. I also give myself permission to skim the passages that are dense and numb my skull. There’s no pressure– no quiz– just an exciting adventure at sea.  I notice patterns and think about what message might be intended, but that comes automatically to this geeky retired professor. A friend from my knitting group heard me talking about the book and said she wants to start reading it too.  It’s a movement!

The next book is Manage Your Day blah blah blah. Someone should have better edited the title, in my humble opinion. It’s another one of those books that I have a tendency to buy and then wonder why I did. The lessons are pretty straight forward: eliminate the distractions and make time for all that’s creative. Do the important stuff first, then fill in with the trivial tasks. I do like the advice to indulge in “unnecessary creation”; that’s using personal creative projects to explore new obsessions, skills or ways of working in a low-pressure environment. My photography, socializing cats, colorwork knitting, reading Moby Dick… are examples of ways to stretch beyond my comfort zone and try something different.

The last book on my January list is a treasure. My daughter Molly gave it to me for Christmas and described it as a book like the ones we read together when she was younger. The Last Elf is just that… I’m enjoying it as a novel, but also using it as a delightful vehicle to remember when we shared the Narnia series and so many other memory making books. When I see her, we’ll pour a cup of tea and gab about this for quite awhile.

I often think that there are so many books and so little time. I’m making more time to get lost in books, and it’s a fine way to start of the new year. I haven’t thought about what books I’ll tackle in February, but there’s no rush. They have a way of choosing me.

Seeds and Tweeds

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Surf Drive

Surf Drive

Traffic around town has lightened up.

No one’s chair or blanket is within ear shot at the beach.

And our pizza, antipasto and wings from Stone L’Oven is delivered in less than 25 minutes.

Yes, Fall is coming to the Cape.

It’s cool enough to throw on a light sweater in the morning and wonderfully breezy enough to keep the windows open all day. It smells like “back to school” but I’m not going!

Like potato chips, but better

Like potato chips, but better

I love this time of year. It’s when I make my own agenda of what I want to “cover” this non-semester and where I want to spend my energy. Looks like I’ve got a larger than usual pile of books, project bags full of knitting, writing that’s waiting to be done, and an exercise program that I’m looking forward to making a habit. I am so tempted to buy a new notebook, pencil case, and book bag, but I know I don’t need any of that. I have a Staples warehouse in my basement and a resolution to not buy the unnecessary. These are the seeds for the new season.

Beach Plums Bike Path

Beach Plums Bike Path

Being a perpetual student excites me. Going to the library or on-line to find answers to big or little questions is good for my brain and my soul. After reading The Hare with Amber Eyes, I was curious to see what the art pieces looked like as well as learn more about the author, Edmund de Waal, and his family. Working on my own writing has me looking at what other writers have to say about writing. Brainpickings has been a rich resource about writing and all kinds of curiosities. I can learn as much or as little as I choose. I’m the barometer, the metronome, and the rubric.

Stone Mama

Stone Mama

I’ve been toying with Keri Smith’s book How to be an Explorer of the World. The basic premise is to sharpen your observation skills as well as your creative documentation of what is observed. I like the invitation to find patterns in my observations, and the problem solving that goes along with it. What I don’t like is Smith’s expectation that I “collect stuff” in generous quantities…i.e. pick up 30 items of interest on your daily, random walk today. The last thing(s) I need in my life is more stuff… so I’m going to have to re-create that part of the assignment or maybe not do it (the nuns are turning over in their graves). Slowing down to notice objects, actions, behavior, ideas, questions and possible answers is a worthwhile endeavor.

Hitchhiker Shawl

Hitchhiker Shawl

Taking more photographs is a way to capture a memory, a thought, a feeling without having clutter to contend with. I like that too. It’s amazing how having an iPhone has increased my opportunity to practice taking photos. It’s always handy. I can point and click. No trip to the drug store to get film developed; it is an open invitation to practice, practice, practice taking lots of shots.

This time of year reminds me of New Years; one parcel of time is winding up, the other winding down. But after a bit, I realized that Spring is a period of renewal for me, too. Guess these observations say more about me than I realized.

Blueberries in My Thrown Bowl

Blueberries in My Thrown Bowl

I Do, I Did, 41

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A quiet 9 am walk to the beach is a good way to start the day. The past week hasn’t been “beach weather” so this morning, before the rains begin again, it was prime time to “carpe beach”. A forty-minute constitutional stretches the legs and the mind a bit.

7/1/72

7/1/72

Tomorrow, July 1, is our 41st wedding anniversary. Amazing! Three score and seven years ago we had the tiniest (32 people) wedding and officially started our lives together. It was perfect! I was a sophomore at Boston College, and David just completed his first year of grad school at MIT. We were both students and always stayed that way. There wasn’t a lot of spare cash, but we were never hungry or bored. We took walks around the Chestnut Hill reservoir, listened to lots of music, read all types of books, and made a homey nest for ourselves. We baked bread, cooked at home, and always had lots of conversation. It’s funny, forty-one years later, not much of our daily routine has changed.

7/1/72

7/1/72

 

Of all the possible reasons to celebrate, I think wedding anniversaries top the list. You don’t only have to live another year longer, you have to live it with someone else. That means putting up, shutting up, and sometimes blowing up over the minutia that makes up our lives. I continue to talk too loud, leave lids ajar and have piles of works in progress all over the house. David is David—my eccentric physicist. I say the glass is more than half full, and he says it’s half empty. We continue to re-learn the art of compromise, diplomacy and appreciating all the good stuff. It’s a dance step that changes over time, and we adapt. We’ve spent 41 years growing up together. It has been very good, and the best is yet to come.

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Book Groupie

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Often my reading habits follow criss-crossing lines with unexpected, often interesting, consequences. This is definitely the case these past few weeks.

I’m continuing to read Academically Adrift and appreciating the hardcore research on the academic behaviors of college students. In short, students are under-prepared and universities are failing to meet most needs. This research is validating my observations in the field. I routinely confronted these issues firsthand when teaching in the classroom, and now I’m writing a book that includes my observations and remedies to these problems. That is happening, slowly, but surely.

Next on my nerdy agenda: I joined a new book club because I needed more literary oxygen and book talk. It’s the Non-fiction Book Group at Falmouth Public Library. Wow—what a smart group of well-read, articulate folks. We just finished reading and discussing a book I probably would never have read on my own: The Road to Ubar by Nicholas Clapp. It’s a fascinating account of Clapp’s attempt to discover ancient ruins whose existence waiver between myth and reality. This book shows the power of intellectual curiosity and the rewards of the inquiry method in practice. Clapp, a documentary film producer, has a fire in his belly to learn all he can about this ancient community. It encouraged me to push beyond the text and check out other resources. The book, itself, was an adventure. And best of all, the book group members are a most welcome addition to my literary life.

This begs the question: “So what do I really want out of a book group?” I want to read a text that is challenging and have bright folks engage in a lively, smart discussion ABOUT THE BOOK. I don’t want it to be a food festival of recipes that are vaguely connected to the title and devoured by a book group that never cracked the book. Also, I’m finding that I want our monthly selection to be more than a leisurely beach book; I need it to stretch and expand what I can already do on my own. So, I’ve joined two new book groups—one non-fiction and one fiction—both run by my local libraries. The non-fiction Ubar selection was great—fingers crossed for the fiction choice which is Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. I start that next week.

One literary device I really hate in books is cheap trickery. I found this to be the case in Barbara Shapiro’s, The Art Forger. This “novel” focuses on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist. It reads as an interesting mystery that I thought was based on actual fact. Here comes the problem: the blurry line between fact and fiction. The author says it’s a novel, but includes so many “factual” details and references to reality that it reads like a true narrative of an actual event. It is about forging art, and the book itself is a forgery—how clever, no, how annoying. The end of the book reveals that most of what the reader thought was true, is not. Even the Boston Globe article that looked so authentic, is faked. Needless to say, I didn’t find it effective or satisfying. The last time I remember getting so irritated at a cheap trick was after I finished reading Memoirs of a Geisha and found out that the “geisha” was really a young man from Brookline, MA, not even a geisha in the family. Ugh!

My irritation about The Art Forger was not in vain. Several months ago, David and I made a day trip to the Outer Cape and back again. We stumbled upon Parnassus Bookstore, and I asked my favorite question: “What should I not leave today without buying? The wise salesclerk put a copy of Mrs. Jack by Louise Hall Tharp in my hands and said “You’ll love it.” Mrs. Jack is a biography–to my surprise–of Isabella Stewart Gardner: a smart, feisty, accomplished Boston woman who created the Gardner Museum. I am more than half way through this book, and it is unadulterated joy. Her life is worth reading about; the author’s voice and style are addictive. I try to read just one chapter a night before I go to sleep, and that is impossible…like chocolates, just one more, just one more. What a refreshing change from The Art Forger. I must revisit Parnassus Bookstore and ask for another recommendation.

Life is short. So many books, so little time. Be picky.