Even though February was a short month, and despite all the snow we shoveled within those four weeks, I somehow managed to read a few books. Here’s my quick rundown:
Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio (essays) — I have been really enjoying essays over the past year or so, and this collection did not disappoint. The writing—the vocabulary, even—is quite remarkable. Indeed, it is the book that prompted me to purchase a new thesaurus. Some of the essays are dark and uncomfortable, but D’Ambrosio offers so much depth, nuance, and keen observation that you find yourself immersed in places that you likely would never find yourself, like a disturbing haunted house or thinking about Mary Kay Letourneau. They were all much like living the experiences first hand which, to me, is the mark of a really great writer. The only one I did not care for was Salinger and Sobs, but that was solely because I barely remember what Catcher in the Rye was about and so I felt a little lost when he used the book in the context of describing his brothers’ deaths. I will certainly re-read this collection again at some point, even if just to be awed by the eloquent prose.
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande (nonfiction) — I already reviewed this important and well-written book on the blog, and you can read it here.
Ticket to Childhood, Nguyen Nhat Anh (fiction/translation from Vietnamese) — I have to be honest, I found this story to fall a bit short of what I was hoping for based on the jacket description (“a sly and lovely story about what we lose when we grow up”). Maybe I missed something (totally possible) but it felt a tad disjointed. There were certainly a few very profound passages, but the story as a whole just didn’t do it for me (which, now thinking back, has happened for me on a number of translated stories).
Almost Famous Women, Megan Mayhew Bergman (short stories/historical fiction) — In addition to essays, I am favoring short story collections these days. I really liked the variety of short stories about largely unknown women in the past. Some of the women were not likable and surprisingly that’s what I loved when coming across those kinds of characters in this book. My favorite story in the collection was The Autobiography of Allegra Byron; the emotional turmoil endured by Allegra’s caretaker, a woman who’d lost her own daughter to typhus, really came across the page, as did life in the abbey where the little girl was sent to live. I will defer a more thorough review to this one done by NPR, which is what first compelled me to buy the book.
The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart (nonfiction) — If you are interested in the history of various alcoholic spirits (gin, wine, tequila, beer, elderflower liqueur, etc.) and love plant life/gardening, this is a great book. It covers a wide range of spirits (many I’d never heard of) and how plant life is responsible for each of them. I purchased it for my iPad when BookBub offered it on sale a few months ago. Since I don’t read a whole lot on my iPad, I’ve been chipping away at this one here and there and finally finished it (I could never seem to read it all in one go). I think this would be great to have on a bookshelf devoted to gardening or food/drink rather than on an iPad, and would make a great gift book too.
The Five Moral Pieces, Umberto Eco (essays) — This line on the back of the book is why I picked it up for a read: “What does it mean to be moral or ethical when one doesn’t believe in God?” The back cover also declares that the underlying subject of the five essays is “the ethics involved with inhabiting this diverse and extraordinary world.” Hmmm. Honestly? I read one of the five essays, and skimmed (super fast) the other four. I enjoyed the one I read (When the Other Appears on the Scene) because it mulled over the question above and gave me much to ponder and note in the margin. The other four were just of no interest to me (that became apparent about four or five paragraphs in).
What I’m currently reading:
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris (part memoir/part exploration of the scientific underpinnings of spirituality, according to the jacket)
Sweetland, Michael Crummey (novel)
What did you read this month? Anything you recommend?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
It’s been a while since I’ve done a longer book review here, but one of the books I just finished, Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, really merits a few paragraphs.
I first learned about this book when I recently saw Dr. Gawande, a surgeon, as the opening guest on Real Time With Bill Maher. I was immediately intrigued by the book he’d written and its core topic: how we take care of (or do not, as the book also points out) people who are in the last days/weeks/years of their lives. In other words, how and where we make our inevitable progression toward death. It is not necessarily as you think it might be.
Yes, this—death and dying—is an uncomfortable topic for virtually everyone to talk about, myself included. But when it is something that is going to happen to each and every one of us, shouldn’t there be more compassionate treatment and open discussion of this ultimate life truth? I think so, especially if you are going to be involved in deciding how someone else has to spend that part of their life. And, more to the point, I think that these considerations should be made far earlier than in the thorniest, most heart wrenching parts of life’s ending.
But to do this, you also have to have an idea of what the current state of affairs is. You need context for how it was, how it is, and, thankfully, how it might all be better in the future if we have a collective shift in how we treat those we love most in their final days.
Dr. Gawande does this so eloquently in this important book. He lays all of this out there, including his own choices in the process, both as son and doctor. Admittedly, he achieves this by giving the reader ample yet often heartbreaking anecdotes in the process when he recounts various stories of patients and people he’s come to know while working on this book. Truth be told, I cried at a few points during this short book. Sometimes I teared up when I related to what I am likely to encounter at some point in my own life (not my own death per se, but the deaths of my family members), but often it was just the lives being described in the book. Do not let those difficult feelings stop you from reading this book.
Here is why I think this book is important: I think many of us are completely clueless about exactly what happens and what choices do/don’t exist when we are nearing the end of our lives. I certainly had no real idea. My only knowledge was based on seeing how my and my husband’s now deceased grandparents and great grandparents progressed through that phase of their lives. Some of those situations were representative of the current state of affairs, and the others fell on either side of that dividing line, but in the end there is much that I completely failed to take into consideration or understand.
I was also ignorant about how “medicalized” it all has become, particularly in the U.S., and it is not necessarily the best road to take. I was taken aback by how much of a loss of autonomy is forced upon the elderly when they enter a nursing home or even assisted living, and the drastic effects this can have. Just the aspect of who nursing homes are often designed for and marketed toward was eye opening. Children want safety for their elderly parents, but this comes at a cost to the parents: their ability to make choices for themselves is stunted if not removed wholesale. Even something as simple as deciding when (or what) to eat is taken away, purportedly in the name of safety. Yet, can you imagine life like that for yourself? It’s hard to do. In the same vein, I was encouraged by Dr. Gawande’s mention of more progressive ways that we are, as a nation and society, rethinking how the elderly should and can spend their lives at the end. Those stories offer hope.
I learned so much from reading this book and was forced to consider, at least for a moment, how the kinds of choices that exist, and those that do not, will play a part in my life as a daughter, wife, etc. At forty-one years old, I know that those decisions, discussions, and difficulties still lie ahead for me, and goodness I hope for a long while still. Obviously no amount of preparation can really make it easy. But by starting to think about them now, I can start to knit together the various aspects that will come into play and how they might be approached. It’s a responsible, though clearly difficult, thing to do as an adult.
I wish more of us were adept at talking about death and how we go through this process with loved ones or alone, as the case may be. This book helps us start those conversations, and it does so with a keen compassion and insight.
Incidentally, though I have not yet watched it, there is a PBS/Frontline documentary based on this book. I plan to watch it once I put a little heart space between myself and the book. There is something about seeing (versus reading about) people in this situation that I am not sure I can handle at this particular moment. But here is the link if you are interested.
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
We’ve been doing a bit of reading on these snowy days. Here’s what I read (or am still pecking at) in January.
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, Pico Iyer – This was a great little book, total impulse buy for me. Turns out it is based on this fifteen minute TED talk, which I didn’t know about before buying the book. The essence of this very short book is the importance of taking time to be still and pay attention, and that what you really need (to understand, write, feel, etc.) is right there if you do just that. I underlined many passages (he quotes Emily Dickinson a few times in the book, which made me happy), and will return to the book again when feeling overwhelmed or distracted in this age of connectedness and technology. Here is but one of my favorite passages, directed toward writers:
Writers, of course, are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning these impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, Sarah Ruhl – I dogeared about 20 essays in this book as my favorites to return to. It’s a lovely little book. Ruhl writes keenly on a variety of topics, often with a good dose of dry wit. She aptly describes the feelings or profound observations I often also have during seemingly mundane moments, particularly through a mother’s lens. But I’ll be honest: I skimmed some essays pretty quickly, particularly those that were very focused on the theater world/plays/playwrights (Ruhl is a playwright, after all) and that was due to my own ignorance and lack of interest in that world more than anything else.
Monday or Tuesday: Eight Stories, Virginia Woolf – The eight stories in this thin book offer a short burst of the kind of prose Woolf is known for. I was meh about half of the stories. My favorite was “A Society” which was a lovely feminist rant about the male intellect, written almost 100 years ago. I was surprised to see how much the modern era feminist sounds so familiar today.
Garden Voices: Stories of Women and Their Gardens, Carolyn Freas Rapp – If you are a woman who gardens, or know one, I cannot recommend this book enough. It was given to me by my mother for my birthday. I read it in one sitting. There really are a million reasons why any one of us who gardens decides to dedicate a portion of our life to growing something. I was truly moved by the varied stories written by the different women in this book. Before each gardener’s essay, Rapp offers a brief snapshot of how she came to know that gardener in her personal life or some insight about their personality. At the end of the book there are also a few pages where each gardener offers their best advice for gardening and/or life. Highly recommend.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel – Everyone is raving about this book. You can add me to the list. Great story and great storytelling. She weaves beauty and hope throughout a storyline (post-apocalpytic world) that could otherwise seem bleak. I think what also kept my attention was how the story was not told in a linear fashion. I like books that tie back to points in the past, and the way she does it here gives the book the feel of a mystery novel because, at least for me, I was constantly wondering how all of the characters and plot points would be tied together at the end. I will be thinking about this one for a while.
I am usually a multi-tasker when it comes to books. Here are the others that I am actively pecking at or poking through in bursts right now (reviews to come once I’m finished)
Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio (I must give a brief review even though I’m only half done: the writing is stellar)
Dancing With Myself, Billy Idol (it’s been a while since I’ve read a biography and since I’m seeing him in concert this weekend, it felt right to pick it up; apparently it’s not ghostwritten and so has the kind of badass, tell all writing I expected, and am enjoying, from Idol)
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (1960)
What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, Jon Young (I had a false start with this book last year and wanted to pick it up anew because I REALLY miss spring right now)
Vanessa and Her Sister, Priya Parmar (I’m listening to this as an audiobook—my first ever—and I’m enjoying it so far, but it took me a while to get used to paying attention)
What are you reading this weekend?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
“I like to come in from chores and find the early dark in the rooms, when the only gleam is a single lamp over an amaryllis bulb on which my wife is practicing some sort of deception.”
- “A Report in January” by E. B. White (January 30, 1958)
January, especially in New England, has the capacity to be defined by just one word: bleak. It is usually quite cold, and the colors outside fall solely within a tight spectrum of greys, with tired looking cedar fences, twitchy squirrel tails, bare maple branches, and salted asphalt providing the limited range. January arrives on the heels of endless weeks of what feels like (to me) a Bacchanalian festival and orgy of overconsumption. It renders one tired and ready for some serious hunkering down—or is it hiding? It’s probably why I feel so blasé about my birthday each year, and often just wave it off with a “yeah, yeah, thanks” of the hand.
In January, I read more than perhaps any other time of year. I can’t garden and it’s too early to start seeds indoors. I can’t lay down in the grass under my maple tree and pass the time measuring the breezes across my brow. This year, snow shoveling has been at an all time minimum so reasons to be outdoors are few. Even the ice cream shop is closed for the season, cutting my usual destination distractions down by a solid half. So I read. Correction: I hoard books, and I read.
I’ve got a bit of a thing for essays lately. Right now, I’m really, really enjoying Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering. But I mix and mingle others too—that’s the beauty of essays and short stories. You can lean in whole hog, or just dabble from day to day. This morning I opened up The Essays of E. B. White, which I had picked up last week at one of my favorite bookstores. Admission: I’ve never read the full length versions of Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little. I will, someday. Yet I was intrigued by his having an essay collection so I snagged it. Simmering on my shelf for more than a week now, I was dying to dig in, just a little. I chose “A Report in January,” skipping ahead to it simply because the title seemed apt given where we are on the calendar.
At first pass, it doesn’t seem like much of a deep rumination of thoughts. Over nine pages, he eloquently (yet matter of factly) covers seemingly mundane topics: the backyard fox that eludes him, deer hunting in his state of Maine, the ills of development in Florida, dredging up his farm pond, the wet winter, the state of work/jobs in the region, school lunch programs, chopping wood, a neighbor’s new house and White’s distaste for the amount of artificial light it will have (remember: this was written some 57 years ago), and chickens and eggs. That’s it.
But here’s the beauty of essays and essayists—the good ones, at least. They create a thesis, or at least explore the outer edges of one, and often subtly so. It can be hard to appreciate why someone bothered to take the time to put all of those disjointed thoughts onto paper—wood chopping, buying chicks, and school lunch programs? Who really cares? But then you go back to the beginning of this essay, and remember what he’s trying to illuminate:
Margaret Mitchell once made a remark I have treasured. Someone asked her what she was “doing,” and she replied, “Doing? It’s a full-time job to be the author of Gone With the Wind.” I remembered this cheerful statement this morning as I lay in bed, before daylight, marshaling in my head the problems and projects and arrangements of the day and wondering when I would again get a chance to “do” something—like sit at a typewriter. I felt a kinship with Miss Mitchell and comforted myself with the pleasing thought that just to live in New England in winter is a full-time job; you don’t have to “do” anything. The idle pursuit of making a-living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.
I especially love that last line. I think it’s tough to remember sometimes, but I strive to.
The hallmark of a good essay is that moment when you realize that you do care, even if briefly, about what that writer set down into words. You care because you empathize with and understand what he is trying to convey.
Perhaps it is a bit premature to file my own January report. But in a sense, that’s what this blog and the other writing I do is. I’ll add to that the photos I take too because I think they often better capture the moment and emotions I am trying to remember. Maybe my words won’t end up in a book, waiting for some stranger in a college town to pluck it off the shelf, but they are somewhere and not much different than what Mr. White was trying to do. If you write, you’re simply trying to tease out the essence and connectedness of what’s noteworthy among our days, even the shortest and bleakest ones in January.
What’s in your January report so far?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
First, a little housekeeping.* A week ago, I wrote this post, Nine Things I Wonder About Other Writers. The reaction was unprecedented, particularly given my usual low readership/commenter-ship. I’m pretty small potatoes and quite honestly am so touched by the response. In fact, I still have not had enough time to respond to some of the comments, for which I apologize. I have been volunteering at my daughter’s school quite a bit this week, and last night was sidelined with a crushing migraine. I promise to respond to each comment on that blog post in due course.
That post then lead to others answering the same questions on their own blogs, and I strongly encourage all of you to read those and their respective comments. So far, FIFTEEN (!) other writers/bloggers have each written a post: Nina Badzin, Lindsey Mead (A Design So Vast), Lara Anderson (Joy, Lovely Joy), Justine Uhlenbrock (Heirloom Mothering), Andrea Jarrell, Stacey Loscalzo, Tricia Mirchandani (Raising Humans), Rivki Silver (Life in the Married Lane), Rudri Bhatt Patel (Being Rudri), Sarah Brentyn (Lemon Shark), Rebecca Klempner, Angelique Marcom, Dana Schwartz, Evelyn A. Lauer, and Zsofia McMullin (Hunglish Girl). If there are others I missed, please leave a comment and I’ll add you here too.
All of the responses, wherever they might appear, have been very insightful, helpful, and, if nothing else, make certain doubts and/or hesitations (of mine) feel normal. This is why I recommend reading those other posts and the comments to my original post.
BUT! I thought it might be helpful, to aggregate the recommended “must have/must read” writing craft books mentioned in all the various posts/comments in one spot (as of 12/22/14), so that is what this post is meant to do. As a reminder, I specifically asked people to leave off books by Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, Dani Shapiro, and Natalie Goldberg (because I have those). I am presently time-pressed, so I’m going to skip hyperlinks at the moment, figuring that we all know where that certain jungle of a book buying website can be found, or at least our local bookseller or library.
On Writing, Stephen King (by FAR the most recommended)
Steering the Craft, Ursula Leguin (for fiction)
How Fiction Works, James Wood
From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler (for fiction)
Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter (for fiction)
On Writing Well, William Zinsser
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Burroway & Stuckey-French eds.
The Getaway Car, Anne Patchett
The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate
The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, Ted Kooser
Cheryl Strayed’s “Write Like A Motherf*cker“ (in her Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus)
Becoming A Writer, Dorothea Brande
The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield
Writing Begins With the Breath, Laraine Herring
What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
Writing Motherhood, Lisa Garrigues
***(EDITED 12/22/14 to add additional blog posts and books, and 1/5/15 to add more blog posts)***
If there are other must have/must read writing craft books that you think warrant inclusion, leave the title/author in a comment and I’ll add them to the list.
*Another bit of housekeeping: (1) A few folks (I think because of either Nina’s or Lindsey’s mention of my post on their Facebook pages) have requested to become friends with me on Facebook. I do have a personal FB account, but I keep it very private and limited to just my closest family and friends, so if you try to connect via that one, I am not likely to accept, sorry. I do this more for my family’s privacy than mine. But I do have a “Kristen Ploetz, Writer” page that you can search for on there and “like,” and I hope that you do. (2) I’ve recently switched my Instagram account (@littlelodestar) to private. It won’t affect existing followers, but anyone else new I will have to approve first. I’m doing this to cut down on the spam I was receiving, but also because I like to know who’s looking of photos of my personal life, that I’m more or less happy to share, but within reason. (For instance, I was getting a few private accounts following me that wouldn’t reciprocate. Sorry. Dealbreaker. That kind of one-sidedness creeps me out.)
Thanks for your understanding.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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