Books I’m Loving

Image result for piles of booksIt’s that post-Christmas, post-New Year time when I find myself with a pile of books and that snow-ridden setting that allows me a little time to read. There’s just that little bit more time to allow books to be strewn abo

ut my floor, ripe for the picking and switching when I get to the end of a chapter in one. Right now, I’m reading a bunch of books that have some common themes, although I did not seek these themes out on purpose.,204,203,200_.jpgTo start, I am reading All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister. I have an idea for a    non-fiction book that studies the narratives available to women of the 21st Century, and so, Traister’s book immediately appealed to me when I saw it on the shelf. I’ve been making my way through it, delightedly, and here’s why: this book is part memoir and part historical and social narrative. I love the mix of the two. But, I’ll be honest, I may have, at least once in my reading, skipped past a chapter on the history and gone directly to the author’s narrative account of her own life. I just eat that stuff up.

Interestingly, Traister notes that she started research for the book right before she married her husband. I love the idea that she decided to write about single life just as she embarked upon married life; the two lifestyles seem decidedly contingent upon each other, as her book reveals.

Contrary to what the title may indicate, this is not a book advocating only single life. Or married life. Or any one lifestyle. What the book does do is study the ways that single life for women has evolved and the ways it has transformed marriage and society in general. Traister looks at the ways that marriage age has risen and she also studies the various aspects of single life that help women to enter marriage more fully self-realized and with a broader system of career and friendships that become a part of that marriage. She also examines the elements that make single life a viable and sometimes preferable choice for women. Her task is not to advocate one lifestyle but to point out the revolutionary way that such choice has changed women’s lives in love, career and sense of self. I’m not done with the book–indeed, I tried to slow down my reading of it because I was racing through. I’ll let you know what further gems I find!

Image result for spinster bolick

Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is another title that would probably scare away some readers. As I was telling a friend recently, the book is brilliant, and the title is the author’s attempt to re-frame that word or to understand it in historical context while re-examining its true meaning in our present time. I am loving this book. And not because I want to be a spinster. I love this book for the way that Bolick interweaves her own personal memoir of love and career and independence alongside of her close study of selected female literary figures from New York City’s recent past. Some of these writers she profiles include Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Yes, this is a book for literature majors, as we appreciate the close study of these women’s writing exploits against the backdrop of early 20th century NYC. But, the book has great appeal beyond that because of the way Bolick writes with such candor about her own search for self understanding, satisfaction with love and career success.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, her book takes her on a journey of investigating her own mother’s experiences with writing, career and marriage. Some of the moments of connection she finds with her mother’s younger self are surprising and poignant. And, as I read, I now have several new female writers to read–women who came to New York and forged, often revolutionary, lifestyles where they wrote and loved and lived in the city, going against the expectations of their families to settle down early and raise children.

As with Traister’s book above, this book is not an advocate for any one life. Most of the women in the book do go on to marry, and Bolick paints sensitive and insightful portraits of the ways their relationships and marriages fed their writing lives or vice versa. I’m close to done with this book but am also drawing it out. Bolick provides an ample appendix of additional related titles, no doubt brought about by her research,  to ensure that readers continue their pleasure in exploring her topic!


Books and Laziness

Books and Laziness

As a teacher, I have my summers off.   I went straight from college to grad school to teaching, so, in fact, I haven’t really known a life without my summers off from my main job, unless you count my brief stint as a tour guide at the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum, which, you can imagine, doesn’t really count as a real job, anyway, so there you go.  My summers off from teaching have always included the usual activities: summer jobs, vacations, etc.  But, recently, I haven’t been as compelled to fill all of my summer time with activities.  One recent summer, I remember spending a great deal of time reclining in a large orange armchair, left at the apartment by previous tenants. I was caring for a friend’s cat that summer.  I was also between roommates, so the house was remarkably devoid of furniture. It was just me, the cat, the orange lazy chair and my stack of books.  No, the way I spent my time didn’t add up to much that would pad a resume.  But, I felt myself in deep immersion that summer. I would come home, drink my lemonade and read.  It couldn’t have gotten much better from my point of view.  It felt in fact indulgent. Lazy. Slatternly.  Wrong somehow.  And yet, oh what an opportunity it was.  How often do we allow ourselves the time to just read.  Huge, uninterrupted blocks of time?  This, I would argue, might be my best practice for the other twin act of indulgence I would like to immerse in—writing a longer form novel or piece of non fiction.  It’s the immersion. The time to get deep—below the appointments, schedules, plans and deadlines that so often pattern typical daily routine.  From the outside, I may have looked as if I was spending a rather boring, even lonely, summer.  For me, it was a gift—one I hadn’t even known to seek out until it was placed in front of me, and I partook. And so, I approach my summers a little differently now.  Sure, I try to earn some money.  And yes, I love to travel and see friends and do the things I never get to do during the school year.  But, I am a little less afraid now of a few weeks of unaccounted for time.  Because I know I’ll find myself doing the thing I love best: reading.

Making Boxes

I’ve been making boxes.  Boxes out of double-sided paper.  Boxes that hold small things.  Candy perhaps.  A small gift, if I have one.  My mother learned how to make these boxes last year from a friend.  They are simple, sort of like origami boxes, only not so delicate.  Making the boxes requires only a square piece of paper and some scissors. No tape or glue required.  There is something infinitely satisfying about making these boxes.  It’s the simplicity: they aren’t too hard too make, are easily completed in a few minutes, and yet do require you to follow a pattern, a certain set of folds and cuts.  There is a nice rhythm to making them.  A nice routine. And then at the end, you have something.  A container.  A decoration.  You feel useful.  I’ve created something, you feel.  However small the thing is.

And the boxes start to accumulate, looking even more pretty and decorative in their piling up status.  Different holiday patterns on the paper can make a box making session a downright festive event.  I made these boxes with my students the other day.  We were meeting as part of our advisor groups, a small grouping of students and me.  I had my girls follow me as I led them through the series of folds and cuts.  Suddenly, all talk of tests and papers and deadlines and all-nighters faded with the simple concentration required for our boxes.

And then we were done.  And they went back to their talk of school and assignments and weekend plans.  And we had three boxes sitting before us, waiting to be filled. Ready for gifts of the season.

Police Clear Zuccotti Park for Clean Up

It’s rare to feel close to history or to political action.  But, today, I feel close to it.  Last night, I attended a panel held by the New York Press Club that discussed the Occupy movement and, specifically, its coverage by the press.  It was a fascinating evening as the panelists were from a range of points of view:  Bill Buster, a representative of Occupy Wall Street, Michael Amon, a Wall Street Journal editor, Robert C. Hockett a professor of law and also a protestor with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the final person, Julie Menin, Chair of lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1, the community board for a neighborhood in lower Manhattan that is close to Zuccotti Park and is therefore affected by the protest camps and all they bring to the area.

I found the range of views interesting as well as educational.  It was partly quite interesting to hear from Bill Buster, the man representing the Occupiers.  I have been curious to hear what the “platform” or argument of the Occupiers is, and he stated it in various ways throughout the night.  It was most interesting to note this Buster’s fervor and the way that he stated the Occupy Movement’s desire to be a non-partisan and instead human movement, one that accepts all points of view.  So interesting also to hear the tone of his voice as he brought up examples of police treatment and lack of press coverage. His observations that the press seemed to purposely not cover major events of violence and brutality seems a bit fanatical.  I don’t know.  Perhaps his observations are legit or perhaps he has drunk too much of the cool aid living down amongst the protesters.  I was a bit frustrated by his lack of concrete demands–I wanted to hear some actual concrete steps he’d like Wall Street or the President to take.  Instead, he repeated that The Occupy movement is  not going away and will make its presence known so that Wall Street and politicians know that they serve the people and not the other way around.

It was quite fascinating to hear Julie Menin speak about the logistical challenges created by the Occupy camp down int he neighborhood.  Two of the big problems have been controlling the noise created by the drum circles and dealing with police barricades that have encroached on local businesses.  She stated that when each of these became a problem, the board worked with the protesters and the police to negotiate changes.  For example, the drum circle was limited to two shorter time periods per day.  And, she was able to have the police barricades moved so that people could still frequent the stores down in the area.  She seemed to have a good attitude about the whole enterprise:  she seems to see her job as working WITH the protestors, not trying to get them out or go against their cause.

The Wall Street editor, Michael Amon, had some general things to say.  I guess one element of the Occupy Wall Street story that has become interesting is that because it has continued on for this long, it is threatening to not be newsworthy.  There begin to be fewer and fewer new angles to take on the movement.  I think that this fact itself, is kind of newsworthy.  What happens when a protest movement sets up shop and becomes common place?  When it doesn’t fade away but in fact becomes part of the everyday life of the area and the city and the nation?  That is significant and I think the implications of this longstanding characteristic of the movement needs to be explored.

Finally, the reason I found the night so interesting is because I got up this morning and read about how the police moved in last night in the early hours of the morning and cleared the park of protestors.  I wondered if Bill Buster knew that was happening.  The protesters were being cleared out for sanitary reasons and also because they had been violating the rules of the park that said the park could be open 24 hours a day with free access to all.  With such large groups of protestors sleeping there, free access was not being allowed to all.  From what I read in the paper, protestors reconvened in Foley Square.  I have to say that just looking at the pictures in the newspaper is pretty striking.  Police in riot gear, protestors being tear gassed, protestors lined up face-to-face with the police. These are images out of the 1960s, although the faces and the intentions are markedly different.  There doesn’t seem to be as much of a split between generations as the 60s had.  There also doesn’t seem to be such a split between north and south.  The issues are different.

Here’s what I also found fascinating from the discussion last night:  the difference of the handling of Oakland, CA protestors versus the NYC protestors.  It seems that in Oakland and Portland there has been more animosity between police and protestors.  There have also been clear-outs of the parks earlier.  I thought about this.  The panel last night said how the attitude between the police and protestors and even the people of the neighborhood seemed to be friendly.  There has been this attitude, in NYC, of wanting to give the protestors a place, or wanting to accommodate them, whereas in the west coast, things have not been that way.  Part of me wonders about this.  Having lived in this NYC area for awhile now, I wonder if this NYC treatment is in fact partly a cultural thing about NYC.  NY likes to have room for its eccentricities.  It likes to showcase them and make room for them. But, I, a bit cynically, think that the reason NY does this is because NY has money.  It isn’t REALLY affected by the protests yet. Right now, these protests are an inconvenience, a spectacle, something interesting.  New Yorkers with all of their money, and let’s not forget this is Wall Street money, have deep pockets from which to draw this tolerance for these protestors.  Do the protestors in fact risk becoming just another one of NY’s quirky side shows that doesn’t really chip away at or affect its moneyed class?  The west coast, on the other hand, has a tradition of protest that may be different in some ways, although I am not sure how it is different.  There is a culture of counter culture that perhaps makes the interactions between police and protestors more genuine, more antagonistic.  The difference between these two geographical areas and their treatment of protestors also rests on the fact that Zuccotti Park is a privately owned park where some of the laws about taking up space, etc can be overlooked if the owner allows it whereas the parks on the west coast are public parks and so the protestors come up against laws much more quickly. But, isn’t this kind of the point? Isn’t breaking the law and forcing police action part of what true protest looks like?  Are the Zuccotti park protestors in fact just living off of the private largesse that they are protesting against?  In fact, the privatization of a park means that often it has its own rules–outside of the public laws enforced for public rights.  And isn’t this what we have seen in America with the banks but also in other aspects of life: that the privatized interests play by different rules, rules that are sometimes above the law or allow people to operate according to another set of laws?

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.31.11

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Many will be familiar with Sittenfeld’s popular book Prep, a book that I highly recommend.  It is a moving and realistic portrayal of one young girl’s navigation of the privileged realm of the private boarding school.

While American Wife possesses all of Sittenfeld’s strong narrative qualities, it is in fact more wide-ranging in its scope and extensive in its character depth and is a very different book.

What’s the book about?  Laura Bush.  This hardly seems like a book that I would want to read, much less end up raving about.  And yet, I really do want to rave about it.  I find this book fascinating and intelligent and illuminating.  Here’s what Sittenfeld does: she writes a fictionalized account of the ex-first lady’s life based upon extensive research she did into Laura Bush’s life.  By fictionalizing this account, (our main character is in fact named Alice Blackwell), Sittenfeld is able to narrate her way into the mindset and life of her character while taking some creative license.  Sittenfeld’s book is dense.  It is ultimately a book that humanizes both Laura Bush as well as her husband.  It moves from the time when Laura was a school librarian, working on her own and spending time at night creating elaborate creative projects for her students, up through the relative present, showing the moment when the U.S. declares war on Iraq.  Sittenfeld creates scenes of Bush family opulence, recreating their various residences as well as family vacation retreats.  Sittenfeld also brings us into the various geographical locales that the family moves to over the years.  We learn of Laura Bush’s painful high school accident where she was responsible for the death of a friend in an automobile accident.  We learn of her deep love for the president amidst her awareness of his very real flaws.

Read this book.  You will come away with a deeper understanding of Laura Bush and her marriage to her husband.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.30.11

Thought I’d spend this post offering some recommendations for good writing books.  Throughout my life really, I have just inhaled writing how-to book after writing how-to book.  Something about their tone just appeals to me.  Much like my favorite genre, memoir, it’s the mix of personal confessional tone along with the story of one’s birth as a writer that appeals to me.  Most of my favs are pretty well-known.  In my early teens I gravitated toward Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.  It may, in fact, have been a gift from my grandmother, who was a poet.  I loved Writing Down the Bones and loved hearing about Goldberg’s experiences with a Zen Master in Minnesota.  She also describes her experiences coming out to her parents, and uses this as a model for how not to hold back in writing.  This was the first time I heard the very common writerly advice to lay it all out in one’s writing practice, regardless of your sense of family reaction, etc. I was happy to find Goldberg’s other titles Wild Mind, which was almost equal in terms of how much I liked it, and Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America, which seemed like drivel that she was able to publish simply on the success of her other titles!  Still, she remains my first influence from the plethora of writing guides that are out there.  Others that have been great reads, the very popular Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, the older title, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande and The Right to Write by Julia Cameron (and, really, any of Cameron’s title on creativity and writing are true gems.)

There are as many writing guides as there are personalities out there!  Suffice it to say that the above guides are more like letters from true friends who tell of their successes and most personal foibles as they engage in the writing life.  The tone in all of these is very casual, very candid and very conversational. And some of them have great jump-starting exercises interspersed throughout.

If you’re looking for more formal guides, methodical guides, guides that lead you through exercises—or anything else–you can find them at your local bookstore or online.  Seek out your writing guides and they will find you–the ones that fit your style and voice.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.29.11

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCraken.

I have great affection for this novel.  A strange little book, it portrays the love story between a librarian and a much younger man, a man afflicted with a syndrome that causes him to be disproportionately tall.  McCracken’s book is beautiful because of the way it captures the affection and love between such an unlikely pair.  Even while the circumstances of their friendship and eventual relationship sometimes walk the line between what might be considered appropriate in more conventional circles, McCracken shows the true love of their regard and care for each other, right down to acts of care for the young man’s increasingly ill body.  Read this book.  It is strange.  It is odd.  And it is unerringly sweet.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.28.11

Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt

This is a book that I enjoyed reading.  It isn’t revolutionary in technique, it doesn’t make any great statements about modern life, it isn’t cutting edge.  Instead, it is just a simple story about the intersection of four peoples’ lives after an accident that happens and leaves questions about individuals’ motives.

The technique of using a single moment of violence to unravel characters’ lives and reveal weaknesses and strengths that characters didn’t even know existed is one that works brilliantly.  Leavitt has a particular knack for describing minute details–gestures, inflections of voice, eye contact–to reveal moments between people.  One of the main characters’ has a penchant for photography, and photos become a way in which characters express subtle feelings and ideas to each other.  Leavitt uses this photography creatively as a device in her narrative.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.29.11

Away by Amy Bloom

Bloom tells the tale of a woman who makes her way in America as a young immigrant from Russia.  Bloom’s descriptions are lush and her recreation of the historical time period in America is accurate and realistic.  Her main character’s past is one of complete loss.  She lost her family to pogroms in Russia.  It is because of the devastation she already suffered even before coming to America that she is able to embrace, however painful they seem, additional experiences of arduous self-sacrifice in America.  She makes her way through bravely seeking out opportunities to work with the upper classes in America all while seeking out companionship in true friends she meets along the way.  She moves from the east coast all the way out to Washington state, befriending a colorful cast of characters who are, themselves, simply trying to make it in the poverty-stricken lives they are eeking out in the underbelly of America’s turn of the century cities.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.29.11

Life on the Outside by Jennifer Gonnerman

I was riveted by this book.  Gonnerman’s reporting is excellent. She spent a year or two following the life of Elaine Bartlett, a woman who is freed from jail and then has to pick up the pieces once back in the real world.  Gonnerman’s premise for the book is that no one follows peoples’ lives once they are out of jail.  How do you repair a life and a family life that has been irrevocably splintered by time away?

Gonnerman shows Bartlett’s struggles to find employment and to keep her children together.  There is no sugar-coating in Gonnerman’s portrayal.  She doesn’t gloss over the mistakes that Bartlett makes nor does she hold back in her descriptions of the injustices that occur as a result of the justice system.  For a glimpse into the life of a woman who undergoes struggles that many in similar roles experience, pick up this book.