Quotes of the Week

This morning I started reading the new Chief Inspector Gamache Novel, The Long Way Home by Louise Penny.  Have I mentioned that I love these books?  They are beautifully written, engaging mysteries which also manage to be adept looks at the inner workings of the human soul.  Already in the first five pages I found two quotes I liked:

“But he’d come to agree with Sister Prejean that no one was as bad as the worst thing they’d done.  Armand Gamache had seen the worst. But he’d also seen the best.  Often in the same person.”

I think it is easy to feel we can really know people “by their fruits” so to speak, when in actuality what we see in people–how they appear or what they do in a moment will never give us the full measure of who they are.  I don’t think we can really presume to judge anyone else solely based on our own observations, and at the same time find comfort in the thought that I, personally, am not solely defined the worst things I have done.

Here’s the other quote I liked:

“Turmoil shook loose all sorts of unpleasant truths.  But it took peace to examine them.”

I thought this was an insightful reminder that trying to make sense of the chaos in our lives while in the midst of it is rarely productive.  Sometimes understanding takes time and distance.

Good thoughts for me today.  I can’t promise there won’t be more from this book when I’ve read the other 370 pages… Til next week!

Quote of the Week

10019950_sThis week I began the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, about a devoted teacher in Iran who began teaching a small group of female students once a week for two years to read and discuss a variety forbidden Western classics.  This particular passage, a mantra Nafisi drilled into her students, stood out:

do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.”

This injunction verbalizes, for me, the essence of an argument I have engaged in several times over the years about the purpose of fiction, and I appreciate the way Nafisi has distilled my thoughts so eloquently.

I agree that it would be impossible to put life on the page…and not only impossible, but rather tedious, if you think about it.  I can’t help but think that in order for a work of fiction to be of worth, it does not need to be entirely actual (as is evidenced by my writing of fantasy) in order to be honest.  Fiction can put a microscope on life and humanity by sharpening, emphasizing, and turning reality on its side, to bring truth to a head. I have found “epiphanies” of resonance in a variety of fictitious places, characters, and situations not because the writing looked exactly like real life, but because it pulled truth out of engaging, if sometimes unlikely places.

Facebook Top 10

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So, those of you on facebook may have noticed the top 10 book status updates floating around.  I saw this article in The Atlantic this morning and thought it was pretty interesting to see the trends of these lists.  Several of mine were in the top 100. Here is my quick list of 10 books that have stayed with me (not including religious or childrens’ books):

  1. Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  2. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
  3. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  4. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter
  5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  6. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  7. Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny
  8. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  9. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  10. Sabriel by Garth Nix

What are your top 10?  Have you shared them yet?  Did they line up the 100 list or are you an original? Feel free to share.

 

 

Quote of the Week

So, here’s a passage I read this week that made me smile.  It is from The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith:

“No, he mused: there is no such thing as a perfect car, and if every car had its good and bad points, it was the same with people.  Just as every person had his or her little ways–habits that niggled or irritated others, annoying mannerisms, vices and failings, moments of selfishness–so too did they have their good points: a winning smile, an infectious sense of humor, the ability to cook a favourite dish just the way you wanted it.

That was the way the world was; it was composed of a few almost perfect people (ourselves); then there were a good many people who generally did their best but were not all that perfect (our friends and colleagues); and finally, there were a few rather nasty ones (our enemies and opponents).  Most people fell into that middle group–those who did their best–and the last group was, thankfully, very small and not much in evidence in places like Botswana where he was fortunate enough to live.”

This is the kind of delightfully simple, endearing, and human dialogue that comes out of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series.  Have you read any?  I love them for a quick, uplifting read with some substance.

This quote especially caught my attention because much as I would hate to admit it…it is likely that often my view of others doesn’t stray far from Mr. JLB Matekoni’s thoughts here. 🙂

Feel free to share any good bits you have come across, as well.

Back again!

Well,  it has been way too long since I have posted anything.  I have had a fairly eventful few months–including family trips across country, new jobs, and moving (isn’t moving the worst thing ever!)– but I think I am starting to get settled and back into my groove here.

One thing I always manage to find a little time for is reading, so I was thinking it might be fun to post a weekly quote or excerpt from something I have read and liked, and would encourage anyone who is interested in sharing to post their finds as well.

Here’s a favorite of mine from Ann Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist:

“By their very nature, he told her in his letters, photos lied. They showed what a person looked like over a fraction of a second–not over long, slow minutes, which was what you’d take to study someone in real life.”

I think there are a number of reasons I like this quote–the most obvious one being that I am, unfortunately, undeniably un-photogenic and like to think that the photos taken of me are an inaccurate portrayal of how I look and who I am.

At the same time, I think my long-standing…distaste for pictures goes beyond that.  Admittedly photos have their place.  Part of our recent unpacking process involved sorting through old photos, and I can’t deny I derived a great amount of joy at being able to look back at these little glimpses into the past–especially where my children are concerned.

Merely, I become bothered with the implication that photos in any way capture life.  In fact, even in my much younger days I became annoyed with the time spent documenting special occasions (like school dances) through photographs–rather than enjoying and experiencing them. And as time has passed and technology has made pictures more widely accessible, I feel it becomes very easy to live life for the photo, or facebook post, or blog article rather than being in the moment itself.

So, I suppose I am willing and happy to accept the photo for the photo’s sake, as an art form, a portrayal or interpretation–I am just not willing to give photos credit for being or capturing life–especially when it comes at the expense of living it.

Anyway, feel free to share your favorites in the comment section. Happy reading!

Luna

One morning about a month ago as my Nielsen men were headed out the door for work/school, my husband called me to the door to see a “surprise” waiting there for me.  What I found was this graceful creature:

LunaWhile anyone might find this a pleasing sight, I should, perhaps, explain why it is of particular interest to me. I may have mentioned that I am a Gene Stratton Porter fan, and along with being a novelist Porter was also something of an amateur naturalist.  Her appreciation for the natural world appears even in her fiction.  In perhaps her most well-known (and my personal favorite) novel, A Girl of the Limberlost, Porter’s heroine earns her way through an education by collecting and selling natural specimens, particularly moths, from the Indiana Limberlost swamp where she lives.  So, while I have had an affinity for creeping things since childhood, my acquaintance with Porter’s novels has romanticized them for me.

I spent a certain amount of time that particular morning, even after the boys had gone, studying and photographing my visitor, expecting that when I opened the door again it would be gone.  I was wrong, however, for when I next left the house, I found the moth remained.  The boys and I continued what became a hobby in the next few days–this constant checking to see if our moth was still in residence.  It had occasionally moved a few inches, but for about five days it stayed on our porch.  The day we came out to find it finally missing left us with a real, but fleeting disappointment.  It didn’t take us long to forget about our visitor altogether.

Yesterday, in a moment of random thought I remembered our moth, and developed a sudden curiosity to identify it.  One brief online search led me to discover that our friend was, in fact, a Luna Moth.  The name alone was an exciting one to me, as it is one of the moths featured in A Girl of the Limberlost, but as I began to read the fine print my interest grew.

Apparently, Lunas are one of the largest moths in North America.  They are not necessarily uncommon, but seeing one is very rare as the creatures generally only live for up to 7 days.  They do not have mouths or eat, they simply emerge from the cocoon, reproduce, and die.

My seven-year-old has a recent interest in unusual animal facts.  A couple of weeks ago while he was astounding us with strange and amazing tidbits of information he was finding in an animal book, he shared that may-flies, similarly, do not eat, but merely live to reproduce and die–their lifespans sometimes being as short as a few minutes.  This spurred me into some thinking and raised a number of questions in my mind (and not just questions of the validity of a life with out eating–although that was definitely among them).  I wondered what function could this creature possibly serve?  What was the point of a life so brief, that was bound to go unmarked.  What was the purpose of a creature that lived merely to create more useless creatures before passing into oblivion.

Yet, here, as if in some kind of answer was the Luna Moth on my porch.  Here was this beautiful, unique, delicate creature that spent what was probably the majority of its life resting at my door.  This visitor in its still, quiet way made me think, and brought me a measure of simple joy. And while I recognize the arrogance in the thought that any of God’s creatures exists merely to give me pleasure, I can say that this creature’s life, however brief, meant something to me.  I don’t intend to forget it.

Some Sandburg

19624868_sRecently, I came home with several books picked from a local rummage sale, including some selected poems by Carl Sandburg.

My previous exposure to Sandburg was limited to the bits and pieces included in various anthologies and literature textbooks, and I don’t believe I ever gave them much thought or credit.  This time, however, I was drawn in, eating up every word.  I’m not sure what made the difference–whether it was reading so many of his poems consecutively, or maybe I feel more of a connection having lived in the Chicago area for a while–but I basically devoured the whole book in one sitting.

I found the writing to be honest, human, occasionally gritty, deliberate without feeling contrived, relevant, and just fun to read.

This one was a favorite:

WORKING GIRLS

The working girls in the morning are going to work–
long lines of them afoot amid the downtown stores
and factories, thousands with little brick-shaped
lunches wrapped in newspapers under their arms.
Each morning as I move through this river of young-
woman life I feel a wonder about where it is all
going, so many with a peach bloom of young years
on them and laughter of red lips and memories in
their eyes of dances the night before and plays and
walks.
Green and gray streams run side by side in a river and
so here are always the others, those who have been
over the way, the women who know each one the
end of life’s gamble for her, the meaning and the
clew, the how and the why of the dances and the
arms that passed around their waists and the fingers
that played in their hair.
Faces go by written over: “I know it all, I know where
the bloom and the laughter go and I have memories,”
and the feet of these move slower and they
have wisdom where the others have beauty.
So the green and the gray move in the early morning
on the downtown streets.

I love the contrasting descriptions of the two groups of people, the “green and the grey”: the young working girls living in the present, marching forward in the morning–and the “others” who have been “over the way” and have the answers, the memories, the wisdom.

I also thought that while Sandburg’s poems are not necessarily “pretty” (they were, at the time, a departure from the “elevated” themes and forms of contemporaries) his writing is not without grace.

UNDER THE HARVEST MOON

     Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

     Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.

Needless to say, I am glad I grabbed the book, and am once again reminded that most things deserve a second look.

Another DC Post…

MandelaThe list of “sights seen” on my recent trip to Washington DC includes a substantial number of important texts, ranging from the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, to the first map to actually call this part of the world “America,” to one of the original Gutenberg bibles.  However, the text that made the greatest impression on me during our visit was much less notable, and certainly less known than the others.

I came across this text, called the Robben Island Bible (or Robben Island Shakespeare) at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  I became familiar with Folger during my undergraduate studies, and was therefore interested in visiting the research library, located near the US Captiol on Capitol Hill.  When my entrance into the building one morning, followed by two other college-aged girls provoked the woman at the desk to exclaim “Wow, this is a busy day,” I deduced that this research library was not exactly a highly-frequented tourist destination.

The woman then went on to describe some of the more notable holdings of the library, finishing with what she called “our treasure,” or the Robben Island Shakespeare, on loan from the British Museum.   Apparently, Robben Island is a small Island off the coast of South Africa that has historically been used to imprison political and other prisoners.  One of the apartheid-era prisoners of the 1970s, named Sonny Venkatrathnam, apparently had his wife send him this Shakespeare’s collected works disguised as a religious text during a brief period when prisoners were allowed one book.  Venkatrathnam read and shared his collection with his fellow prisoners, more than thirty of whom signed the book next to their favorite passage.

Among the signatures is Nelson Mandela’s, who signed next to the passage in Julius Caesar which says, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once.”

I found the story inspiring, both as a testament to the lasting and varied relevance of Shakespeare’s words, but also as another piece of evidence of people persisting in maintaining their humanity in situations meant to strip them of it.   Definitely a sight worth seeing.

The Writing on the Wall

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I took my first trip to Washington DC a couple of weeks ago with my family.  We had a lovely time visiting good friends and seeing many of the “must see” sights. There is, as you most likely know, a lot to see in DC–so many interesting, notable, historical, important things and places…some of which, I admit, were honestly inspiring.

One of these, for me, was the Library of Congress.  Have you been there?  It is beautiful.  Obviously there are many lovely, marbled classical buildings in that city–but this one takes the cake.  So much, light, and color, and grandeur.

I suppose it is not surprising, all things considered, that I should favor a library (one of the worlds two largest at that), especially knowing that my own book passed through at some point (along with 20,000 others a day, but you know).  But one of my favorite things about the building was reading the writing on the walls, and ceilings, of the building.  Dozens of quotations from notable literary and historical figures adorn the Great Hall, and I recorded a few of my favorites which I thought I would share here–recognizing the possibility that these may seem much less weighty on your computer screen than they did painted into the frescoes–but you can take them or leave them.

BEHOLDING THE BRIGHT COUNTENANCE OF TRUTH, IN THE QUIET
AND STILL AIR OF DELIGHTFUL STUDIES.
Milton, Introduction to Church Government

IT IS THE MIND THAT MAKES THE MAN, AND OUR VIGOR
IS IN OUR IMMORTAL SOUL Ovid

THEY ARE NEVER ALONE THAT ARE ACCOMPANIED WITH NOBLE THOUGHTS
Sir Philip Sidney, Arcadi

WISDOM IS THE PRINCIPAL THING; THEREFORE GET WISDOM;
AND WITH ALL THY GETTING, GET UNDERSTANDING
Holy Bible, Proverbs 4:7

IGNORANCE IS THE CURSE OF GOD,
KNOWLEDGE THE WING WHEREWITH WE FLY TO HEAVEN
Shakespeare, Henry IV, pt. ii, Act iv., Sc. 7

IN BOOKS LIES THE SOUL OF THE WHOLE PAST TIME
Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship, “The Hero as a Man of Letters”

WORDS ARE ALSO ACTIONS AND ACTIONS ARE A KIND OF WORDS
Emerson, Essays, “The Poet”

 

Ballet and Better Writing

A while ago a friend and I went to see Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet perform a contemporary collection called “American Legends.” I spent most of my childhood dancing ballet, just quitting before high school to focus on other interests.  Yet, while I had seen my share of classical ballet and contemporary (modern) dance, this was the first time I had been to a contemporary ballet, and I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. The highlight of the show (and frankly, the reason we chose to attend this particular performance) was the final ballet, Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs.”

I loved it; smiled the whole time. And, once I got past the fact that the women were in heels, and the men in tuxes, it occurred to me that in spite of the obvious costume and music departures, when it came right down to it, contemporary ballet was still, essentially, ballet.  The steps, the form, the structure were all there under the long skirts and spinning mirror ball.

During my dancing years I can’t remember how many times I heard someone preach, “if you can dance ballet well, you can dance anything well.”  Which was true, at least for me. Once I had a basic mastery of the discipline of ballet; jazz, modern, tap, street funk (yes, I grew up in the 80-90s, and yes, I danced a mean “running man”) were a breeze.  And, I can’t help but think that writing well is not dissimilar.

The argument about whether or not to teach grammar was rolling around when I was studying education, and I imagine it still rages.  Some of my English classmates at Utah State used to argue that really good writers can write around the grammar and usage areas they are unfamiliar with, and while I definitely see their point, I also think that, like dancing ballet, if you can master the structure, the discipline of writing, then the rest is a breeze.

That is not to say that I have always felt this way.  In fact, I was vehemently annoyed with much of the grammar instruction during my school years and received middling to poor grades on many papers before I began to give in to direction on how to structure an essay.  My general disinterest in details has made me inclined to be very excited about whatever point I wanted to make, or story I wanted to tell—often at the expense of telling them well.  I specifically remember sitting down with an English professor to talk about a paper and having him tell me that my ideas were fantastic…but that it might be a good idea to print out my paper and actually read through it once before handing it in.  As the years have passed, however, I have seen firsthand the benefits of understanding what makes good, clean, clear writing and applying it.

Make no mistake, the idea is essential, but in order to express it, to really communicate the thought or the story, it is crucial that a writer knows, technically, how to write it with skill.  After all, knowing what you want to dance is only as important as knowing how to dance it, and dance it well.