Tag Archives: reading

Words to live by

“Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

So says Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, shortly after meeting his room/bedmate, the South Seas islander Queequeg. I must say it’s a thought that’s given me pause since I heard it the other day.

If you have not already discovered it, allow me to recommend the Moby Dick Big Read, a fantastic audio project spawned by a 2011 symposium and art exhibition on the whale at Plymouth University. All 135 chapters of Melville’s classic have been read aloud and recorded, to be released for free download, one chapter a day from the middle of September to the middle of January.

I know someone whose father read her Moby Dick as a bedtime story when she was little. She recalls those evenings with warmth and fondness, and believes they instilled in her a life-long love of the sea and all things maritime. Listening to these audio files, I imagine myself a small girl, snuggled beside my friend beneath a billowing comforter in her childhood bedroom. Even the shadows in the corners seem to bend closer to catch the animated cadences of her father’s voice, rising and falling like the sea.

Writing that inspires: Seven Pillars of Wisdom

I’ve been reading T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and at times his prose is breathtaking. Here’s what he says about his journey down the Red Sea by boat from Suez to Jidda:

By day we lay in shadow; and for great part of the glorious nights we would tramp up and down the wet decks under the stars in the steaming breath of the southern wind. But when at last we anchored in the outer harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless. (p. 49)

I feel like I’m there, standing on the ship’s deck beneath a noonday sun so bright that all color seems muted, trying to hold firm against the assault of that intense heat.

Lawrence describes dozens of different types of sand and stone throughout the book, the way they lie together in valleys or tower over the landscape in layered escarpments.  I can see them in my mind’s eye, and I find myself longing to see them with the eyes of my face as well, to feel them beneath my camel’s feet and hear the sounds they make when traversed by wind and body.

The swept ground was so flat and clean, the pebbles so variegated, their colors so joyously blended that they gave a sense of design to the landscape; and this feeling was strengthened by the straight lines and sharpness of the hills. They rose on each hand regularly, precipices a thousand feet in height of granite-brown and dark porphyry-coloured rock, with pink stains; and by a strange fortune these glowing hills rested on hundred-foot bases of the cross-grained stone, whose unusual colour suggested a thin growth of moss. (p. 72)

His language often evokes images of water, reflecting both the incongruent influence of water on the terrain and the necessary preoccupation with water that underlies the thoughts and actions of desert dwellers.

The hills got lower, with the sand banked up against them in greater drifts, till even the crests were sand-spattered, and at last drowned beyond sight. So as the sun became high and painfully fierce, we led out upon a waste of dunes, rolling southward for miles down hill to the misty sea, where it lay grey-blue in the false distance of the heat. (p. 93)

Such descriptions remind me of the incredible cinematography in Lawrence of Arabia (one of my favorite films of all time), and I realize that the movie’s vast panoramas and sweeping score attempt to express the ineffable qualities of Lawrence’s evocative words. This is what he writes about the great interior expanse of the Arabian peninsula:

We, ourselves, felt tiny in it, and our urgent progress across its immensity was a stillness or immobility of futile effort. (p. 238)

Alas, thus does my own writing seem some days!

(All quotations from the 1997 Wordsworth Edition.)


I’m back in civilization after a week in the woods with my daughter’s confirmation class (and about 70 other confirmation kids from a dozen congregations). It was peaceful to be off the grid; it was heaven not to have to plan and prepare meals, though I did help with setup and cleanup several times. Because I was a last-minute substitution (our youth minister’s mother had surgery two days before camp began), I had very few responsibilities, so a good chunk of time was at my disposal almost every day.

I put that time to fairly good use. I finished reading a novel I had begun weeks before, and then devoured three more novels I’d brought along. For those keeping score at home, that’s more novels than I read in the twelve preceding months. (I’m so far behind in my reading that it’s statistically unlikely I will live long enough to read all the books in my possession right now – never mind any list I might have.)

All that reading made me realize that I need a new prescription for my glasses. To rest my eyes between bouts of reading, I wrote. I drafted a couple new poems, recorded a few dreams, explored plot ideas that came out of those dreams, and reworked a poem I found when I flipped back through my journal. I was able to write every day, and it was wonderful.

I’m trying to figure out how I can wangle an invitation to camp again next year.

Inspired by Oz

Today, the kids and I watched The Wizard of Oz at the local historic movie palace. It’s amazing the details you can see on the big screen, things that go unnoticed when the film is viewed on television. It used to be broadcast on TV every year when I was growing up, and my family always watched it. Today it dawned on me that I was ten years old before I realized that the scenes in Oz are in color, because we didn’t have a color TV until I was ten.

As a child, the tornado that sends Dorothy to Oz was unspeakably terrifying because tornadoes regularly cut swaths of death and destruction through my community. I spent an obscene number of hours huddled under a table in the southwest corner of our basement, waiting for the storm to rip our house from its foundations. For most of my childhood and into early adulthood, tornadoes were powerful and recurring images in my dreams, and they always looked like that horrible, snaky cyclone in the Wizard of Oz. I have to admit that seeing it on the big screen today was a bit unnerving, even now.

I never actually read the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz until a few years ago, when I read it to my own children. (We have now read all but three of the 14 Oz novels L. Frank Baum penned.) When I was in fourth grade, my teacher went on maternity leave in the middle of the year and was replaced by a sub who read Tik-Tok of Oz aloud to us after lunch every day. The following year, I received Ozma of Oz as a Christmas present. It remains to this day my very favorite Oz book.

I never realized how progressive Baum’s vision was until I began reading the books to my children. He wrote empowered female characters who stand up for what is right, lead armies and expeditions, and rule nations. He imagined a world in which animals and non-biological entities are people, too. He created a place in which common sense and quick wit hold their own with magic, sometimes even trumping it. And he envisioned a land in which good and evil aren’t entirely rigid concepts – good people can make poor decisions or do things that harm others, and evil people can have a change of heart.

I believe it is this latter quality, this fundamental belief that things are not always what they appear to be and that change is always possible and nearly always happens, that has inspired others to retell the stories of Oz. From The Wiz to Wicked to Tin Man, Baum’s Oz has been reenvisioned in unexpected ways that remain surprisingly true to the original source material. Oz has become a kind of dreamscape, in which familiar images reveal new layers of meaning to successive generations of readers and writers. I think Mr. Baum would be pleased.

On voice

Voice is an unavoidable component of all forms of writing. To slightly paraphrase Janice Hardy, voice is the sense that there is a person behind the words. That sense of person is how the reader connects with what the writer says. If there is a problem with voice, the connection will be faulty or won’t be made at all.

How can there be a problem with voice? Isn’t the writer always the person behind the words? Well, yes and no. Yes, the writer is always somewhere behind the words, but often the writer wants to communicate or connect through a particular perspective or persona, even in non-fiction. Any time the words don’t clearly convey that perspective or persona, the connection shorts out.

Although this can happen in several ways, inconsistency is the most common problem with voice. It’s like someone changing channels during a broadcast without warning: inconsistent voice makes it hard to follow what’s going on, whether that’s a line of reasoning or a plot line. The simplest way to be consistent is to maintain the same perspective throughout a written piece (much harder than it sounds). This is not to say, however, that shifts in perspective make for poor writing or need to be avoided. When executed properly, they bring a delightful complexity and nuance to writing.

How can changes in perspective, by their very definition, be consistent? They happen in a manner that makes sense, that arises naturally from the plot or argument and advances it. They follow a structural pattern, usually visible, occurring at section or chapter breaks. They take place when a scene changes or when new source material is introduced.  Here’s the real kicker: when shifts in perspective add to the plot or line of reasoning without disruption or distraction, they weave together to form a single, rich, complex voice.

The writer’s voice.

Lazy Friday blog post: “Stuff about me” quiz

Seeing as this is Friday, and I am lazy AND running late, I decided to take a short-cut. I hope it is at least mildly entertaining.

A Facebook friend “tagged” me with the following, but since I have no idea what that means or what to do with it, I decided to copy the quiz and use it for a blog post. I may not be tech-savvy, but I’m resourceful!

Please feel free to do the same. If you do so and want me to read it, just leave a comment to let me know where to find it. Have a great Friday!

1. What time did you get up this morning? Alarm went off at 5:45 a.m. Feet hit the floor ten minutes later.

2. How do you like your steak? Medium. Pink in the middle is nice.

3. What was the last film you saw at the cinema? Toy Story 3 at the dollar movies. (I don’t get out much.)

4. What is your favorite TV show? Don’t watch TV.

5. If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be? Someplace where I didn’t need a car.

6. What did you have for breakfast? Smoothie made with strawberries, hemp milk, whey protein, and flax seed oil. Yum!

7. What is your favorite cuisine? Malaysian, because it incorporates elements of so many other delectable cuisines.

8. What foods do you dislike? Too salty and too sweet.

9. Favorite Place to Eat? Gunan Tahan, Malaysian restaurant in Amity CT that is no more. Alas!

10. Favorite dressing? My friend Dawn’s homemade Italian.

11.What kind of vehicle do you drive? Toyota minivan with automatic sliding door on passenger side.

12. What are your favorite clothes? Loose and flowing, like robes or muu-muus.

13. Where would you visit if you had the chance? Anywhere extraterrestrial

14. Cup 1/2 empty or 1/2 full? By definition it has to be both (I’m a double Libra, after all), but the empty half isn’t really of much use now, is it?

15. Where would you want to retire? Somewhere that I didn’t need a car.

16. Favorite time of day? Evening/late night (10 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. is my peak time.)

17. Favorite Season? Autumn

18. What is your favorite sport to watch? Baseball

19. Who do you think will not tag you back? What is this “tag” of which you speak?

20. Person you expect to tag you back first? Again I ask, what is “tag”?

21. Who are you most curious about their responses to this? I’ll be thrilled to death if anyone even READS it.

22. Bird watcher? When they are in my field of vision, yes.

23. Are you a morning person or a night person? Isn’t that covered in #16?

24. Do you have any pets? Two cats: one middle-aged and very sweet, one young and very stupid.

25. Any new and exciting news you’d like to share? I’ve been nominated for the Nobel prize in bulls**ting.

26. What did you want to be when you were little? First a doctor, then a pilot, then an astronaut. Didn’t follow through on that too well, did I?

27. What is your best childhood memory? My relationships with trees, the big maple in the back yard and the ancient juniper at church camp in particular.

28. Are you a cat or dog person? Yes.

29. Are you married? Yes. (Is it just me, or are some of these questions pretty uninteresting?)

30. Always wear your seat belt? Yes, and my car doesn’t move until everyone else is wearing theirs as well.

31. Been in a car accident? A couple: one very traumatic in childhood, though no one was hurt, and one minor fender-bender (literally) in adulthood. I was not driving in either case.

32. Any pet peeves? “all about me” quizzes that ask stupid and uninteresting questions.

33. Favorite Pizza Toppings? Anything but anchovies, though I’m rather partial to a white pie with fresh tomato, fresh basil, and garlic.

34. Favorite Flower? Whatever is blooming where I am. In my garden right now that would be marigolds, mums, Verbena bonariensis, hyacinth bean, and roses.

35. Favorite Hobby(ies)? Reading, crocheting, writing, cooking, eating, talking.

36. Favorite fast food restaurant? Chipotle

37. How many times did you fail your driver’s test? Zero

38. From whom did you get your last email? I believe it was from a gentleman in West Africa who wanted to confirm my contact information so he could send me my inheritance.

39. Which store would you choose to max out your credit card? Joseph-Beth Bookstore

40. Do anything spontaneous lately? Decided to answer this quiz

41. Like your job? The question is missing a subject and quite possibly a verb.

42. What’s your eye color? Gray/green with flecks of orange when I’m angry, or so my sisters tell me.

43. What was your favorite vacation? The time we went to Vail and I got to hike and read all day and we slept with the French doors wide open all night because there are no mosquitoes at that altitude.

44. Last person you went out to dinner with? We all dragged our sorry tails to KFC buffet last night because everyone was too tired to cook. Does that count?

45. What are you listening to right now? My great-grandparents’ clock ticking in the living room and the distant roar of the interstate.

46. What is your favorite color? Periwinkle blue. The color of cornflowers (chicory)

47. How many tattoos do you have? Zero

49. What time did you finish this quiz? 9:17 a.m.

50. Coffee Drinker? Only socially.

Too much

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” — Mae West

As I wandered the aisles of a large chain bookstore the other day, I experienced a growing sense of unease. I paused between the Philosophy and the New Age Spirituality sections and sought to put my finger on the cause. A few minutes later I murmured, “There are too many books in the world.” Even as one part of my mind reeled in astonishment, I looked about me, nodded my head, and repeated, “There are too many books in the world.”

Coming from a hopeless bibliophile and former aspiring writer, this is nothing less than shocking. Stranger still, my profound love of both reading and writing has led me to this uncomfortable conviction. There are not enough days left to me in this life, nor hours in those days, to read all the books currently in print that I want to read. Likewise, such a surfeit (dare I say glut?) of books makes it extremely unlikely that anything written by me will ever find it’s way into print, let alone to a retailer’s shelf. These twin realizations sank in like fangs, the venom of their import so debilitating that I had to leave the bookstore at once. I may not be able to go back.

I have long been a great fan of Mae West, and the quote at the top of this posting is one I have claimed at times as a personal motto. Now I find myself sadly and reluctantly amending it to fit my present state: Too much of a good thing can be simply too much for me.

Blathering on

Despite the fact that I’ve been diligently microblogging for several days now, I feel as though I have been terribly negligent of my Daily Compost duties. Never mind that I’ve had bronchitis, a child with H1N1,* and an ongoing mental health crisis — wait, that last bit is standard operating procedure by now — I still feel that I’ve let down the three people who check this blog every now and then.

So here I am today, blathering on. I’ve half a mind not to post this just because it seems so trivial, but I suspect that the nagging sense of guilt and responsibility will triumph in the end. I HAVE been busy doing things, even writerly things; I just haven’t been busy posting to my blog.

I’ve been reading: Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris; The Two Marys by Sylvia Brown; Tall Dark Stranger by Corrine Kenner; Writer Mama by Christina Katz. I’ve also been taking an online course that has required me to do a fair amount of research, so I’ve been taking lots of notes. (I take a lot of notes when I read, too, even fiction: I like to jot down turns of phrase, images, and words that catch my eye.) I’ve been fretting over a review of Star Trek (2009) that I started right after I first saw it back in May; it’s taken me a while to get my thoughts together, and now I fear it’s too late to be relevant.

What else…I’ve started baking bread again now that the weather has turned cool. I’ve kind of let the garden go because everything is so riotously large and wild looking that the weeds are hardly noticeable. (This is a very bad idea, by the way, because huge quantities of seeds are being produced RIGHT NOW by those same weeds. DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!) I remind people daily of their chores and responsibilities, make sure that everyone gets where they’re supposed to go with the materials and supplies they’re supposed to have — library books, lunches, clarinets, etc.

All in all, I’m just cruisin’ through the daily round of things. I guess the rhythm of it has had a hypnotic effect on me, lulling me into becoming a non-blogging zombie. Interestingly enough, just writing this post has given me all kinds of ideas for future postings. I just hope I can remember them when I sit down at the computer tomorrow.

*Probable. They stopped testing around here when the CDC placed Kentucky in the “widespread” infection category.

On truth and fiction

A friend recently told me about something odd that once happened to her in a writing class. The assignment was an exercise in showing rather than telling: write a short piece in which one character discovers that his or her spouse is having an affair, without anyone explicitly saying so. Inspired by a comment the instructor made to a male student in the class, my friend wrote a piece in which a man finds out that his wife’s involvement with her business partner, another woman, extends beyond the strictly professional.

After this piece was read as part of the class critique process, my friend says that her classmates assumed she must be a lesbian and hit on her steadily until the end of the semester — men and women alike. As it happened, my friend was newly divorced and not interested in a relationship with anyone of any gender or orientation, so this was an especially annoying development. The experience further made my friend extremely cautious about sharing her writing within a group of any kind — what if she wrote about a character who was a serial killer or a user of illegal drugs? Who knows what kind of crazy things her fellow writers might assume about her!

I told her I always assume that everyone is bisexual, though I prefer the term ambisextrous (it sounds less clinical and more fun). I figure I can’t go wrong — I’m neither surprised nor caught in an awkward position when someone expresses or reveals a sexual preference. She found this delightfully funny, and I hope it reassured her that not everyone leaps to judgment about an author, especially when it comes to fiction.

I didn’t ask her how long ago or where this happened, though clearly it didn’t take place during her undergraduate days at a respected southern Bible college. Nevertheless I was startled that students in this day and age (relatively speaking) would draw a conclusion like that from such scant and flimsy evidence. I was even more surprised that students in a fiction writing class, of all places, would imagine such a direct correlation between an author and the details of her writing.

My non-literal way of reading must be even further out of the mainstream than I realized. Maybe all the hysteria surrounding Harry Potter or The DaVinci Code, for example, accurately reflects the state of the American mind rather than the lunatic fringe. If so, then perhaps the educational system aimed a bit wide of the mark in the late 20th century with its focus on standardized testing and quantifiable results. Public responses to literary offerings may be a far more informative measure of educational success than grade point averages and test scores.

Restless reader

I am a compulsive and restless reader. At any one time, I’m in the midst of a novel and at least two non-fiction books plus a number of periodicals. I keep lighter reading magazines in the bathroom at all times and cart the more cerebral journals and reviews around with me, just in case I’m stuck in traffic or stop for a cup of tea somewhere. I have a stack of books next to my chair in the living room, a stack of books on the shelf next to my bed, and two shelves of “new arrivals” in the study.

In theory, once I finish reading something it can go on the appropriate bookshelf in the study. The only hitch is if I want to take notes from the book before I shelve it, in which case it sits around, little Post-It flags sticking out the side, until I get around to the task. In an ideal world, I would sit down right away — possibly even as I read — and write out the notes while they are still fresh in my mind. With the current time lag, I sometimes look at a flagged page and have no earthly idea what I wanted to glean from it. Fortunately I’m not one to lay awake at night until I figure it out; experience has taught me that anything I have to work that hard to remember is never worth it. Thank goodness I’m fairly good at letting things go.

Sometimes I worry I’m a little too good at it.