"While we are reading, we are all Don Quixote." ~ Mason Cooley

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In Search of Good Writing

"Good writing is clear thinking made visible."
~ Anonymous

Over the years, I've been enamored with writers who create believable characters, or those who use unusual descriptive behavior, or who develop intriguing plot lines, reading mainly fiction or occasionally non-fiction that could be helpful to my business (or an immediate personal crisis).

These past few years, with the time that retirement affords and the support of participation in a book club with members of diverse interests, I've become a much more eclectic reader who is learning to appreciate, above all, quality writing.  Writing that helps me clarify my own thinking, or writing so crisp as to expand or challenge the way I currently think.  

Now, I'm reading essays, short stories, memoirs, historical narrative, science, and, what may surprise some of my friends, searching the net for commentaries, book reviews, etc.  

This month, I'd like to recommend two diverse examples of good reading I've been fortunate to discover.

The first is a book of essays by poet and essayist, (and funeral director!) Thomas Lynch, BODIES IN MOTION AND AT REST.   As reviewed in the New York Times in 2000, "The essays in ''Bodies in Motion and at Rest'' are a thought-provoking, engaging hybrid of memoir, meditation and comic monologue.  Whether writing about his Roman Catholic boyhood, fatherhood, the family legacy of alcoholism, the funeral trade or the integral relationship in his life between the ''mortuary and literary arts,'' Lynch approaches his subjects with a beautifully executed balance of irreverence with reverence, gallows humor with emotional delicacy and no-nonsense immanence with lyrical transcendence."

I parceled out the essays, as I do a box of Godiva chocolates, savoring each, wanting the pleasure to last as long as possible.  This is a book I will read again.

The second example is brainpickings, a site originally recommended by one of the aforementioned book club members.  Its weekly newsletter,  accessed at https://www.brainpickings.org, introduces the reader to a variety of topics containing references and links to related books and articles.  It is consistently well-written and beautifully illustrated.   Be warned, you will be reading all week if, like me, you can't resist clicking on the additional links.  Check it out.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Worth Checking Out

                                                             ~   Arthur Schopenhauer

Here are three novels that have not only assuaged any trouble or concern I may have had these past months, but they also engaged me for far more than an hour at a time - one of my criteria for a good book.

The Nature of the Beast: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel by Louise Penny. c2015
This is the 11th installment in the series about the Canadian Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, now retired to the tiny village of Three Pines - and one of my favorite in the series. (I could not put it down, read it in one day.) The story line is based on a true episode in Canadian history which makes the rising threat in the novel even more believably threatening.

Penny must love this quirky cast of characters she has created, for they grow in depth and complexity, with talents and foibles, strengths and secrets, while maintaining the core of consistency one finds in decade-old friendships.  Above all, Penny is a skilled writer who combines intricate, multi-layered plots, as well as rich character development, with vivid imagery.  She, like P.D. James or Ruth Rundell, is a writer of mysteries, rather than a mystery writer.

You do not need to have read the previous novels to become engrossed in The Nature of the Beast.  But had I not, I would immediately have bought the first in the series, Still Life.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. c2014
I have to admit that I would not have read this book were it not one my book club's selections for the summer- not another World War II novel?!  And what a loss that would have been.

On one level, this is the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose lives collide in occupied France.  Their stories are told in alternating chapters that also shift back and forth in time, providing a framework for lessons about the brain and blindness, about art and light waves we cannot see, about courage and brain washing.  And a different kind of World War ll novel, centered around the impact on the lives of children rather than battles and strategy. blood and despair.

But for all the depth of story, all the lessons learned, what I loved most about this work was Doerr's stunning use of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors.  This is a book to read slowly, to savor, to marvel at and to read again.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. cl971
I discovered Wallace Stegner late in life, again thanks to my book club.  Have meant to read this for the last 5 years, but it took a friend, whose recommendations I value, telling me that this is her "very favorite novel", one she revisits every few years, to motivate me to finally pick it up.

I was hooked within the first three pages.  Hooked by the promise of fascinating characters, an intricate plot, a deeper understanding of the history of the West (I am a transplanted Mid-westerner) and the exploration of some personal questions that I am currently pondering, and some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read.  I wasn't disappointed.

Angle of Repose explores several themes in its story within a story. First,  it is a complex, compassionate examination of marriage  and the angle of repose - "the angle at which two lines prop each other up, the leaning together from the vertical which produces the false arch.  For lack of a keystone, the false arch may be as much as one can expect in this life. " As Lyman Ward, a disabled, divorced professor chooses to explore his grandparents' enduring marriage, he naturally explores his own life, his failed marriage, the kind of man he has become and might yet become.

But along the way, it is also of story of youthful hopes and expectations, disappointments and loss, reality vs. myth.  Seamlessly woven into a gorgeous piece of writing, well deserving of the Pulitzer, worth checking out, if you've not read it.  Worth reading more than once.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Last Gift of Time

"Women, I believe, search for fellow beings who have faced similar struggles, conveyed them in ways a reader can transform into her own life, confirmed desires the reader had hardly acknowledged - desires that now seem possible.  Women catch courage from the women whose lives and writings they read and women call the bearer of that courage friend."

~ Carolyn Heilbrun
The Last Gift of Time:Life Beyond Sixty

I have been fortunate to acquire a few such friends along the way, often by accident - Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Tristine Rainer, Judith Cameron, Natalie Goldberg.  Heilbrun is the most recent; somehow I missed her until recently when The Last Gift of Time was lent to me by a friend to whom I'd shared my interest in reading about aging. This book, she said, was a must to read, a classic, a favorite of hers and of her mother before her. I wasn't 20 pages into the book when I knew I wanted my own copy. 

Although I am close in age to the age at which Heilbrun wrote the book, I did not identify easily with her at the outset, the particulars of our lives being quite different.  Heilbrun was a distinguished author and critic, a professor at Colombia for over 30 years, a single child of upper class Jewish parents, a mother and grandmother, well-traveled, well-known.  And I - the eldest daughter of working class Sicilian-Americans, a Mid-westerner at heart, educator, small business owner, no children - in so many ways, an ordinary woman. 

As the book unfolded, however, as Heilbrun shared her insights and opinions about men, marriage, memory, time, mortality, I felt I'd come across a kindred spirit.  When she described her despair over the state of our society, I became her hallelujah choir.  When she declared a woman could be a feminist without hating men, I knew I'd found another friend (Heilbrun calls such a friend "unmet").  And when she asserted that to remain vital beyond sixty, one needs to pursue an undertaking that "requires strong effort and the evidence of growing proficiency", I knew this to be another one of those right books at the right time that I cherish.

What sealed my conviction that I'd found another friend was the sense of recognition when I discovered that Heilbrun had written a mystery series under the pseudonym of Amanda Cross, a series I had devoured years ago.  And the sense of loss and sadness when I learned that Heilbrun had committed suicide only seven years after the publication of The Last Gift of Time.

I recognize that some younger readers may find this book to be dated; after all, it was written over 20 years ago.  But I hope they will explore it anyway, if only to appreciate the challenges and contributions of feminists of Heilbrun's era.  And to get a taste of her writing style.  Crisp, clear, intelligent, uncompromising, with an irreverence I found particularly appealing.  

My copy arrived in the mail yesterday.  I intend to reread it soon, to take more time to savor the writing, to reflect more carefully, to appreciate that I came upon this gift, now that I am beyond sixty.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

I Recommend....

"My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” 
                                                                                                                       Dr. Seuss     

In the last years of my mother's life, she often said that it seemed she was reading the Sunday paper every day, so quickly was time passing by.  I'm not quite at that point yet, but the quick passage of time has been brought home to me repeatedly in recent months...my 74th birthday, my "baby" brother's 70th, our 32nd wedding anniversary. the 40th birthday of a young man I would have sworn was only 25.  And returning to this blog to discover I haven't posted in almost a year to the day!

I have been reading, honestly!  In fact, two or three books some weeks.  Mystery, historical narrative, psychology, e-books, paperbacks.   Book club selections, books I've enjoyed, books I haven't finished - but none that I've felt compelled to share until recently.  None that I couldn't wait to recommend to friend, family, even strangers, until recently.

Therefore, after a longer hiatus than I had planned, here are four books that I have been recommending, even extolling whenever and wherever I've had the opportunity.

Flourish by Martin E. P. Seligman    NF c2013

Seligman, considered by some as the father of Positive Psychology, has continued his work on resiliency, learned optimism and most recently, what he refers to as well-being.  A champion of learning from what works and from healthy practices rather than illness and disease, Seligman combines research and application and presents his findings here with clarity and - optimism.

I almost cheered when I read that Seligman "detests" the word happiness because it's become so overused as to become meaningless...the way I also have come to feel about the word "deserve".

Focusing on well-being and its five pillars of positive emotion, engagement, positive relationship, meaning and accomplishment, Seligman asserts, is what makes for the good life.  And he supports his assertions with academic studies as well as anecdotal stories.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Willpower Instinct ~ by Dr. Kelly McGonagal

"Everyone struggles in some way with temptation, addiction, distraction, and procrastination."
                                ~Dr. Kelly McGonigal

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, is a leading expert in mind-body research.  Her book is written in ten chapters to parallel her popular ten-week course, The Science of Will Power.  Using relevant research from psychology, neuroscience and biology, Dr. McGonigal delivers on her promise to provide greater insights into the human struggle with willpower and a set of strategies to support the reader with the particular challenges that led him or her to the book in the first place.

Just reading that everyone struggles in some way with willpower challenges was reassuring.  Her definition of willpower - "the ability to do what you really want to do when a part of you doesn' t want to do it - immediately resonated.  My particular challenge - distraction.  I can get off-course in a moment simply by going into a different room and spotting something to be put away or cleaned, that magazine I've been wanting to read, etc., etc. .  I can get lost for hours in a book or worse, a computer game. Simple interruptions can derail me. And now retired, without work appointments and deadlines as boundaries, it is far too easy to lose hours to distractions and then, wonder where the day has gone.  To feel guilty and once again chastise myself for not having more self-control.

Hence the siren call of this title - The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.  I could wish that I had found this book years ago, but I'm not sure I would have been motivated enough to choose it nor fully aware of how easily I can be distracted (and it was only published two years ago anyway!)  But if you are motivated to examine your willpower or lack thereof , I highly recommend this book.  Not only is the content grounded in research, but Dr. McGonigal's writing style is very accessible. She relates several anecdotal examples throughout the book and has a delightful sense of humor..  As the review in USA Today Book Review so aptly wrote, McGonigal "combines the braininess of a Malcolm Gladwell bestseller with the actual helpfulness of an Idiot's Guide to not being lazy."  I read it cover to cover in two sittings - well, I am retired. 

The true test of any self-help book, however, is  whether the information and the suggested activities can be applied by the reader and....that they produce a desired result.   If it, indeed, does help.  For this reader, it has.   Yup, wish I'd read it years ago.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

An Oldie, But a Goodie!

Every now and then I want a simple, straightforward, old-fashioned mystery.  No psychological twists and turns. No blood and gore.  No complicated plot.  No need to look up a word or try to infer the meaning of a foreign phrase.  In short, an Agatha Christie novel.

0ver the years I have read every Hercule Poirot novel, and once the  PBS TV series was aired, I read them again, now able to visualize that wonderful actor, David Suchet, who brought every idiosyncratic Poirot mannerism to life.

For some reason, however, I have not read many of the Miss Jane Marple series.. This past weekend I renewed acquaintances with the somewhat eccentric spinster who comes from the little village of St. Mary Mead and is initially perceived as just a sweet little old lady, everyone's maiden aunt.   A sweet little old lady whose keen powers of observation, and understanding and basic distrust of human nature make her a most unlikely detective. A shrewd and dogged detective.

A Pocket Full of Rye, one of the seven using a nursery rhyme theme, is vintage Agatha Christie. Plenty of singular British characters, a murder to be solved (in this novel there are three, no less), sufficient clues to test the readers sleuthing skills without resorting to frivolous red herrings, an intelligent vocabulary, reasonable dialogue and a conclusion that is logical and congruent.  The comfort food of mysteries.

Recently PBS aired a documentary about three researchers who attempted to analyze Agatha Christie's prolific body of work - 66 novels and 14 short story collections.  Any Christie fan would find it interesting.  In the meantime, Wikipedia does a good job of presenting some of the same information.

Although I've given up my one time summer goal of reading the entire Christie library, I did enjoy A Pocket Full of Rye.  I think I'll spend some time becoming better acquainted with the old gal.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Beastly Things ~ by Donna Leon

If you've read any of my other postings, you know I enjoy mysteries.  Not just any mysteries, however. For the most part, I prefer those written by a handful of European and Canadian authors. And one of  my  favorites is Donna Leon.

I recently was pleased to read a review of her work in which Leon is described as a literary crime novelist.  The label elevates her beyond the stereotypical image of a mystery writer.  And rightly so -no mere whodunits here, no simple formulaic plots, or two-dimensional characters. No red herrings. Leon's protagonist, Guido Brunetti, is a compassionate, ethical, and intelligent man whose complex personality has been developed over this series that now numbers 20 novels.  Developed not only in Leon's rich and layered descriptions of his thinking and behavior over time, but through his relationships with the cast of multi-dimensional supporting characters that populate the series.

The label is also appropriate because Leon is a talented and skillful writer.  Her metaphors are striking, her sense of humor delightful, her descriptions of Venice, whether of the city itself, its history, culture, or politics, intriguing.  Were the subject not crime, she most certainly would be found on fiction shelves, not mystery.

But what I most appreciate about Leon is her expectation that her readers are curious, intelligent and open to new information and attitudes. Both Guido and his wife, Paola, are inveterate readers - Guido, an aficionado of classic Greek and Roman historians and Paola, a professor of English literature who loves Henry James. 

Additionally, each of the novels explores a social and/or environmental issue - issues that impact not only Italy,  but, it could be argued, other nations as well- pollution, illegal immigration, racism, child prostitution, political corruption, etc., etc. In Beastly Things the issue is graft, corruption, and unhealthy practices in a slaughterhouse...and the consequences.  Although Leon has definite opinions, she manages to present them in the context of the story line.  Heads up - the description of the slaughterhouse practices may be enough to make a vegetarian of any reader!

If you have read Leon in the past, but haven't kept up, you can jump in here.  If you have never read her,  I recommend you start at the beginning of the series with Death at La Fenice and get a proper introduction to Guido Brunetti,  his family and colleagues, and the remarkable city of Venice.