Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nontraditional Nonfiction


"Until we have found our own ground and connection to the Whole, we are unsettled, grouchy, and on the edge of falling apart...afterward, you know you rightly belong in this world, and that you are being held by some Larger Force.  For some seemingly illogical reason life then feels okay and even good and right and purposeful." Richard Rohr

Nontraditional Nonfiction: This week we will be focusing on the nontraditional side of reading nonfiction. Nonfiction comes in many forms. There are the traditional hardcover or paperback print books, of course, but then you also have e-books, audiobooks, illustrated and graphic nonfiction, oversized folios, miniatures, internet publishing, and enhanced books complete with artifacts. So many choices! Do you find yourself drawn to or away from nontraditional nonfiction? Do you enjoy some nontraditional formats, but not others? Perhaps you have recommendations for readers who want to dive into nontraditional formats. We want to hear all about it this week!

I thought this week's prompt was going to be one I couldn't do, as I almost always read print books, but after reading some of the other blogger's entries, I decided to broaden my thinking a bit about what I consider "reading."

I have discovered that nonfiction is often easier for me on Kindle than in print.  I think partly this is because on Kindle, I don't become discouraged by the sheer volume of so many nonfiction books.  Spillover by David Quamman, for example, is a book I have been struggling to finish for over two years.  I would make a little headway, then set it aside and not pick it up for months, until September when I decided to try it on my Kindle while I was in South Africa.  Once I migrated to Kindle, I finished the last half of the book in a little over a month.  It had taken me two years to read the first half.  I also find that I seem to be able to focus better on my Kindle than I do on print books.  I know this is counter to the experience I'm supposed to have.  I've read the studies.  I don't know how to explain it.  Maybe my brain processes backwards.  That would explain a lot, actually.  I think my next Kindle project is going to be Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.  I've been watching Making North America on PBS, and I read somewhere that this was a recommended read by the series host, Kirk Johnson.  I'm a sucker for a science book. I also like Kindle for my daily self-help type reading.  Right now on Kindle, I'm reading Richard Rohr's Breathing Underwater, The Upanishads, and re-reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.

Audiobooks seem to be a very popular nontraditional format for a lot of people.  My only real success with audiobooks has been comedy, David Sedaris in particular.  His voice is absolutely perfect for his stories.  I don't have a lot of time to listen to audio, and I find my mind often wanders when I try.  With the coming of winter, I hope to be walking at the indoor track more.  If anyone has any recommendations for audio books to listen to while I walk, please share them.  Just remember the options need to be light and fairly easy to follow, or I'll zone out.  Walking into a wall is not beyond the realm of possibility for me if I get too intent on what I'm hearing.

Although it's been several years since I read one, I have thoroughly enjoyed the graphic novels I have read.  Three that stand out in particular are Maus I and II by Art Spiegelman and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.  I've had Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi on my shelf for years.  May be a good time to get to that one.

Another different way I read is via email.  I subscribe to Richard Rohr's daily email, and most days I read it before I even get out of bed.  It's a good length for a quick but thought-provoking read.  In the last several months, he has published series on Buddhism; Jung; Nonviolence; Myth, Art and Poetry, and on AA's 12 Step program.  Check him out.  I love his work.

My last nontraditional format may be a bit of a stretch, but if audio books count, Podcasts should count too.  At one point I was trying to listen to TED talks, The Moth, Literary Disco, and several others, but I was getting overwhelmed and not really listening to any of them, so I've narrowed my Podcasts down to On Being with Krista Tippett.  I have never been disappointed with these weekly, thought-provoking conversations.  This week's interview with Lisa Randall (here) is especially appropriate for a Nonfiction November post. Now I want to read all of her books.  Sigh.  So many books, so little time.  I need to retire.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Whole World Sparks and Flames

photo by Amy Brandon

"But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn't flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames."  Annie Dillard

This week's Nonfiction November topic suggestion to pair a nonfiction book with a novel is easy for me, as two of the books I've recently finished lend themselves to pairing in multiple ways:  both are narrated by mountain-loving, independent-thinking women, both are set in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, both revel in the beauty of the natural world, and both are books I loved but would hesitate to recommend to everyone.  If all of that's not enough, my edition of Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith sports an endorsement by Annie Dillard, the author of the nonfiction part of the pairing, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  

I recently blogged about Fair and Tender Ladies (here), an epistolary novel which tells the story, through her own words, of Ivy Rowe, a Virginia mountain woman who is wedded more completely to her precious home mountain than to any member of the human race.   

The second part of this post is going to be a bit more difficult, not because I liked Pilgrim at Tinker Creek less, but because I loved it more.  I loved it more, in fact, than about ninety percent of everything else I've ever read.  Maybe I'm overstating, but probably not.  Now before you get all 1-Click happy and buy you a copy, hear me out.

There have been many times I've jumped blind and head-first after a book based on a blog rave and then been completely taken aback when I thought I was getting A Tale of Two Cities and ended up with an engineering text on city planning.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not a novel.  It is not linear.  There is no catchy dialogue, no clever character development, no plot twists, no climax, no denouement. What exactly it is defies definition.  It is poetry.  It is beauty.  It is a prayer, a meditation, and a continual revelation. It is water and light and wind and wild and earth and luminosity and brilliance and obscurity.  At its simplest, it is the journal of one woman's year on Virginia's Tinker Creek.  At its most complex, it is, well, I don't know, because I haven't grasped it all yet.  In between, it is theosophy, philosophy, theology, biology, entomology, and lots of other -ologies I can't name.  I am already re-reading it.  I suspect I will be constantly re-reading it over and over again.  It must be read slowly and thoughtfully and much of it must be felt instead of understood.  It is a balm for the weary soul.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek taught me to see. And oh, the things I have seen:

  • a dragonfly hovering right at eye-level, facing off against this odd-looking interloper in his territory on a paddle board,
  • a globular spider launching up and down, up and down, spinning against the back-lit, blue pink, twilight sky,
  • a hognose snake reared up and puffed up like a cobra looking dangerous and angry but in truth benign and terrified
  • scores of schools of fish, silver-bright twisting and turning in the jade waves as they break and reassemble all around me, my skin slippery with their quintessence
  • a pin oak leaf spinning in a crazy dance on a barely visible web filament in a breeze so gentle I missed it until I saw it transform a dead leaf into a gift of extraordinary, exquisite beauty.
I've spent countless hours looking at nature before.  I've been awed and inspired by her beauty before.  But usually, I was looking for the big picture, the grand view, the obvious impression. How many of these small, lovely things would I have missed simply because I never thought to look?  We see what we expect to see, and I fear this is more curse than blessing.  When you open your eyes, really open them, and look around, you find something breathtakingly beautiful in every minute, even it it's just the bright, iridescent green fly occupying the space where your hand will soon be on your car door.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Nonfiction November


Your Year in Nonfiction: Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

After I decided to participate in Nonfiction November and read the first set of questions (above), I looked back over my year of reading and realized I had only completed two nonfiction books.  That's just sad.  It doesn't mean I haven't been reading nonfiction, just that I haven't been completing it.  I'm still in the middle of Spillover by David Quamann, which I find fascinating but have to be in a certain mood to read, and I'm also still in the middle of Immortal Diamond by Richard Rohr, which I am enjoying but need time and silence to absorb, both of which are in very short supply for me lately.

One of the books I have finished is one of the best, most unusual books I have ever read:  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.  I don't usually have favorite books, but this one may be an exception.  That said, this book is not for everyone.  It is not easy.  It cannot be read quickly.  It requires patience, and parts of it will defy understanding on certain days and in certain ways.  I loved it, but I hesitate to recommend it, knowing how difficult it is and how hard it is for me to know who will love it and who will be like:  huh?  One day I will tackle the task of blogging about it, but not today.

In the spirit of Nonfiction November, I just went to the library and checked out four nonfiction books to dabble around in this week-end.  I don't limit myself to topics or types, although I tend not to like biography.  What I hope to get out of participating in Nonfiction November is the specific goal of finishing or at least making good progress on Spillover, as well as possibly finding my next Nonfiction read.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

It Was a Wonderful Life


"The hawk flys round and round, the sky is so blue.  I think I can hear the old bell ringing like I rang it to call them home      oh I was young then, and I walked in my body like a Queen"
Ivy Ransom in Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith

I know this may sound crazy, but sometimes, I don't really know for sure if I like a book, even when I am in the middle of reading it.  I read so much and so variously that novels seem to run together.  Sometimes, I can't even remember for sure exactly what I have and haven't read.  More problematically, I suppose, often I go into reading a novel with a bias based on my past impressions of the author.  I've found this to be a real problem, as my reading tastes seem to change daily.  At one point in my life, for example, I read a lot of Ruth Rendell and loved her. I remember thinking The Crocodile Bird was fantastic.  A few years ago, I read some of her more recent works and thought, "yeah, not so much."  Now I don't even remember what I didn't like or why.  And don't even get me started on Harper Lee.  To Kill A Mockingbird framed my youth and my young adulthood as one of my reasons for being a lover of literature.  Now I am making myself struggle to finish Go Set a Watchman.  But that's a different post for a different day. 

Right now, I want to talk about Lee Smith.  I have been hit or miss with Lee Smith.  I loved Oral History, and I loved On Agate Hill.  But I had to make myself finish The Devil's Dream, and I was completely underwhelmed by Guests on Earth. So when I started Fair and Tender Ladies about four different times and it never caught me, I was on the verge of giving it up for good.  Then Alexandra of The Sleepless Reader gave the book five stars on Goodreads, and I thought, "maybe I need to make myself finish this one."  I am so glad I did.  About half way into the novel, in my own constant interior monologue and also in my dreams, I found myself thinking in Ivy Ransom's voice, and that's when I knew they had me, Lee Smith and Ivy Ransom, they had me, and I loved this book and this character. 

The book is a collection of letters Ivy writes to various people over the course of her life.  I wasn't sure at first if I was going to like the structure or not, but it worked for this novel's purpose of revealing Ivy's life in pieces over time.  And what a wonderful life it was. I try to avoid re-telling plot points or revealing much about characters, but I do want to note this:  I love that Ivy Ransom never loses herself. She never loses sight of who she is; she never loses her own voice. I find this difficult to believe, given her time, place, and culture.  One of my grandmothers would have grown up in almost exactly the same time and place as Ivy Ransom.  The lessons of that culture still haunt me today. Those cultural mores usually overwhelm you in the end.  I've fought against them my whole life, still do.   And I will have to admit that I don't hold on to my own voice nearly as honestly nor as fearlessly as Ivy Ransom did.  She is my hero, and I hope some day I learn to live as honestly and as ferociously as she did.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

My Excuse for Being Gone...

There is the same difference in a person before and after he is in love as between an unlighted lamp and one that is burning. The lamp was there and was a good lamp, but now it is shedding light, too, and that is its real function.
-- Vincent Van Gogh –
I'm so sorry I haven't blogged about what I've been reading lately.  I promise I have been reading.  I'll try to update my Books Read list soon, but I'm having a heck of a time getting any blog posts written.  On July 4th, Ken proposed, and I've been a little distracted since then.  We are getting married at the end of September. 
I promise I am still reading.  But between work responsibility and personal life, I haven't been able to write much recently.  I fell and hit my head over a week ago, and I have a concussion now, which does not lend itself to written reflection.  My daughter leaves for UNC-Chapel Hill on Friday.  After that, I hope to be able to get back to normal.  Sorry for the crazy interruptions!
In the meantime, Read On!  I am :)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

CCQ II -- O Pioneers!

photo by Anna Reavis

"He felt as if a clear light broke upon his mind, and with it a conviction that good was, after all, stronger than evil, and that good was possible to men." from O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

I've finished the second Willa Cather novel in my Comprehensive Cather Quest, and I think I'm in love again.  O Pioneers! made me feel like I remember feeling after stumbling onto My Antonia purely by accident on a trip to Alaska, of all places.   Since that serendipitous discovery in Anchorage in 2000, My Antonia has remained in my memory as one of my favorite books.  

Thursday afternoon, as I was finishing the novel, I began to sense reflections and hear echoes of words, ideas, and thoughts I had read earlier in the day as I read in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.  So I opened both books and started to compare.  If you ever look for similarities, allusions, common thought processes, they seem to be everywhere.  As I read back and forth between the two books, inevitably, it seems, I began to hear whispers of other, earlier thinkers.  Was Whitman the father and Thoreau the grandfather of these revelations?  Eventually I discovered that O Pioneers! is named after a Whitman poem, but I didn't know that at the time.  It's amazing, really, when you begin to follow the logical progression of ideas down its time-defying rabbit hole.  There have been so few truly enlightened thinkers in our recorded history, and so many of their revelations tend toward the same end:  that grace, beauty, hope, and redemption are what matter, that the world is full of light if we will just see it, that nirvana, salvation, enlightenment is reached in exactly the opposite way we letting go and letting life unfold as it will.

O Pioneers!, the first novel in Cather's Prairie Trilogy, is the story of the unfolding of life for strong, independent Alexandra Bergson, who, as a teen, takes control of her family's struggling farm and builds it into a sprawling, thriving estate.  As the novel opens, John Bergson lays dying.  One of the few things we learn about him is that he only trusts his adolescent daughter, Alexandra, to run his fledgling farm.  Although he has two sons near her age, he knows only she has the foresight and feeling for the land necessary for success and survival for his recently arrived immigrant family.

Alexandra devotes her life to the family and farm, sacrificing her chance to have a family of her own in order for the land to flourish and for her youngest brother, Emil, to have what she considers a chance at the proper kind of life.  Emil does go to college and has plans to become a lawyer.  Having reached the age where I no longer judge success by ascendancy, I see quite a bit of irony in Alexandra's inability to judge herself a success.  I find her to be one of the most successful, courageous women in literature.  She has both big courage and little courage, which I find the hardest kind.  The big, grasping courage life sometimes requires isn't the difficult kind of courage.  When life sweeps you away and requires that kind of courage, you push ahead and are carried along by adrenaline and momentum.  Obviously, Alexandra has this kind of courage.  She takes over the family farm in her teens after her father's death.  The difficult kind of courage is the small, everyday kind, the kind required to live in ennui, routine, and loneliness.  That, I think, is the courage that allows Alexandra to succeed.  I just wish I had that kind of courage.

I love the people and the places of this story.  This book met so many of my requirements:  likable characters, lovely setting, strong woman lead, thought-provoking ideas, and finally, redemption and hope at the end.  Just reading the words calmed and centered me.  The novel is luminous; the story, the words, they are luminous.  Cather's writing feels like an Aaron Copeland song:  open, expansive, and full of hope and promise.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Comprehensive Cather Quest

"Under the moon, under the cold, splendid stars, there were only those two things awake and sleepless; death and love, the rushing river and his burning heart."

Finally, I've begun my Comprehensive Cather Quest, and what a lovely little first book for its beginning was Alexander's Bridge.  I'm not entirely sure why this novel appealed to me as it decidedly does not meet my normal criterion of happy or uplifting, but at this particular moment in time, it is striking me as one of my favorite of her novels.  The characterizations are wonderful, and the plot of this short, moral tale is quick and tight.

Alexander's Bridge ostensibly is about one man's mid-life crisis and the extra-marital affair resulting from his attempt to re-capture his youth.  Like every other Cather novel I've ever read, however, the plot only scratches the surface of the novel's substance.  At novel's beginning, Bartley Alexander is just becoming aware of the depth of his quotidian disquiet. On a trip to London, upon reflecting on his life, "He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape." When he soon crosses paths with the love of his youth, his life veers in a direction he didn't anticipate but probably should have. That's what lack of self-awareness gets us, I think.  We don't know ourselves well enough to realize we're miserable until we do something drastic, like stray from a marriage.

Given the author's age at the time of her writing this novel, I wonder if she were beginning herself to feel the "dulling weariness of on-coming middle age."  Maybe the approach of the "dead calm of middle life" is what prompted her after the publication of Alexander's Bridge to embrace herself as a novelist and shrug off the interference of the daily grind.  I do think we all come to a time in our lives when we have to start living our true selves, letting go of social expectations, and accepting that our own path very well may not follow the "accepted" way.  Thank goodness for the bravery Willa Cather found to follow her path, which allows us today the gift of passages like this one:

"After all, life doesn't offer a man much.  You work like the devil and think you're getting on, and suddenly you discover that you've only been getting yourself tied up.  A million details drink you dry.  Your life keeps going for things you don't want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don't care a rap about.  I sometimes wonder what sort of chap I'd have been if I hadn't been this sort; I want to go and live out his potentialities, too."

As I learn about Cather's life, I begin to suspect that the variance in her work is a reflection of her complex, complicated personality.  In the prologue she wrote to Alexander's Bridge, she seems to be apologizing for its not being like her later work.  I love My Antonia; it's one of my favorite novels, but some of her other work...not so much.  While Alexander's Bridge isn't in the same vein nor of the same caliber as My Antonia, I found it to be much more enjoyable than some of her other work (The Professor's House, for one).  Maybe a re-read of those novels will help me understand what I missed the first time.  I wonder if I was just disappointed in them because they weren't My Antonia, and then I went into Alexander's Bridge expecting to be disappointed and was thus pleasantly surprised.  I'm a perverse person that way.  Don't tell me I'm going to like something, or I won't, and vice versa.  I'm going stop trying to analyze it and just be thankful for a such a good experience to kick off my quest to know Cather more fully.  Next up are her first three short stories and then on to O Pioneers!  Read along if you'd like!