One of the things I love most about books are their ability to connect people in even the most horrible or tragic circumstances. Case in point: my 97-year-old grandmother spent the last 18 months of her life in bed unable to communicate. My visits consisted of me telling her stories about what was going on in my family's life and what was going on in the world. I talked and she listened. Or at least I assumed she listened. It was hard to tell because she just mostly lay there with her eyes close, unresponsive.
But there was one visit toward the end of her life where I was trying to fill the antiseptic silence with stories that would entertain her, if she could even hear them. I was going on and on about what writing I was working on, what my two boys were doing in school, etc. And then I told her that my poetry group had just studied Dorothy Parker. Suddenly, her milky eyes opened wide and she looked right at me and said, a bit garbled, "I LOVE Dorothy Parker."
It was like a little light went on in her tired brain. Of course! Grandma had faithfully read the New Yorker at the time Parker was writing for it. And, like Parker, Grandma was extremely bright and had a very acerbic wit. I read her a few of Parker's short poems and she started making a horrible phlegmy noise. I thought she was coughing—and worried she was dying, but then I realized she was actually laughing at Parker's words.
Grandma only said three more words to me after that visit: "Love you, too." Now I will always think of Grandma when I read Dorothy Parker and I will always remember that moment of clarity and spark. I LOVE Dorothy Parker.
Over on The Gratitudenist today is my post about the inspiring Elizabeth Bishop. If you're not familiar with her work, you owe it to yourself to check her out. Her poems are magical.
It was 1999 and I hadn't had more than two consecutive hours of sleep in about two months. With a colicky newborn, a two-year-old and a whopping case of postpartum depression, I was more than a little overwhelmed. In addition, my miniature dachshund, Suzie, hated the new baby's crying and had begun pacing the bed at night and peeing all over the house. We'd tried to put her in a crate downstairs but she barked all night long for several weeks until we finally gave up and she tunneled under our covers again, only to barrel out of them in ear-flapping agitation whenever the baby cried. All I wanted was to crawl in my own bed by myself in peace and sleep for about 48 hours.
One exhausting, whiny, sleep-deprived day I happened to get both babies down for a nap at the same time. When I quietly pulled back the covers on my own bed, moved the dog over and laid my head on the pillow, I remember feeling such incredible relief. I must have been asleep in under 10 seconds.
And then, five minutes later, the doorbell rang.
The dog barked all the way off the bed, down the hall and to the front door. The baby screamed and the toddler wandered out of his room yelling, "Who dere?" All that chaos for a dropped-off package. And the naps were definitely over. I couldn't help the tears that came or the angry phrases I hurled at poor Suzie. Only new sleep-deprived parents can understand the disheartening trench of an interrupted nap and the threat of no sleep for the foreseeable future.
It was more than I could bear at that moment and I made the decision I would later come to regret - I gave away our precious Suzie. Don't get me wrong, I gave her away to a wonderful family. And when the new family came to pick her up, she jumped right in their car and didn't look back. I think our family had become more than she could bear too.
Three years later, our family was better rested and badly in need of canine companionship. So when I found myself at my wit's end calling the animal shelter only a couple of weeks after adopting Lucy to give her back, I felt like I was being punished by the universe for giving up our dachshund. I felt like a failure again. I felt like I didn't deserve a dog.
But then something unexpected happened. And Lucy is still our beloved dog almost 13 years and three houses later. The story of how we learned to love Lucy was recently published in Chicken Soup For The Soul: The Dog Did What? If you like heartwarming and funny dog stories, you'll probably love this book. Because it turns out that I'm not the only one who loves a dog that has done crazy things.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are some books whose characters' plights won't leave you when you put the book down to go to sleep. This is one of those treasures. Written in the voices of two different women in the early 1800s - the slave daughter of a white plantation owner and an orphaned indentured Irish servant whose parents perished on the boat from Ireland-, this book will seep into your bones and keep you from putting it down for long. It is tension-filled and well paced and gives readers a tragic glimpse into the atrocities committed during the era of slavery, as well as the less-well-known history of indentured Irish slaves.
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I had the unexpected good fortune to find a new friend on an early morning plane ride up to Boston several weeks ago. Carmen, an artist, is just the type of person I’m drawn to – creative, smart, generous, and friendly at 6:30 a.m.
Somewhere over the middle of the country she invited me to come to her poetry group, saying I would enjoy the creative people in it.
I didn’t tell her that I was somewhat frightened of “real” poetry because so often reading poetry had made me feel dumb. During the residencies of my MFA program, for example, whenever it was the night when poets read their work, I would struggle to comprehend the words some of those poets read in what I came to refer to as the “dreaded poetry voice,” long on slow dramatic pauses and short on inflection and accessible meaning. At least to me.
Still, I’d always wanted to be one of those writers who were inspired and moved by meaty, weighty poets. So I didn’t tell Carmen that my favorite poet was Shel Silverstein and that I could recite his poem “Sick” in its entirety.
“A poetry group sounds great,” I said, taking a sip of coffee and trying to exude literary sophistication. “When’s the next meeting?”
So far I’ve been to two poetry meetings. Carmen was right. The group is full of smart, creative, interesting people that I enjoy. One person is responsible for picking the poet each meeting and presenting biographical information. The rest of the group picks a poem they want to read and makes copies for the rest of the group. Each person reads the poem they chose and the group discusses it. Having this discussion time is key. Hearing everyone else’s thoughts about a poem makes it more accessible and meaningful. Some of these women have an extraordinary gift for literary analysis.
I’ve added two poets to my mental literary library: Lydia Davis (who I like because her poems are more like stories) and Rebecca Seiferle. And I must say that I’ve enjoyed their poetry. It’s possible I’m getting smarter. I did learn two new words at last night’s meeting thanks to Seiferle’s work:
1. Larder – A room or place where food is kept.
2. Dicotyledon – Any member of the flowering plants that has a pair of leaves in the embryo of the seed.
I’m starting to change my mind about poetry. All thanks to Carmen from that American flight to Boston.
Now that I have been submitting more, I've become quite a pro at handling rejection. What's my secret? Gratitude. If you're grateful to be alive with the ability to write, rejection doesn't matter. I wrote about this on my Gratitudenist blog yesterday.
But then I read an inspiring article by Susan Spencer-Wendel that I just had to share here. If you're not familiar with Spencer-Wendel's story, I encourage you to check out her best-selling book, Until I Say Goodbye, an inspirational memoir about her struggles with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and her efforts to make the most out of her last few years. She typed the book entirely on her iPhone with one thumb.
This most recent article on Today.com took her 20 hours -yes 20 hours - to write because she no longer has use of her thumb. She now has to use a HeadMouse Extreme, which involves a camera attached to her computer screen and a reflective dot stuck on her nose. She points the dot at the letters on a keyboard that appears on her screen. Can you imagine the patience and perseverance involved in taking twenty hours to write a short article, one letter at a time?
Here's an excerpt from the article about how her new French bulldog, Lenny, has inspired her to keep writing:
In January, right about the time I could no longer eat solid food, I asked for a lapdog. My mother-in-law was visiting and said, "This may be none of my business, but why would you want a second dog at this time?"
Isn't it impossible not to be inspired by this amazing woman and writer? She is the ultimate example of someone who lives with not only gratitude, but also humility and humor. Stories like hers make rejection seem like a tiny, tiny spec of dirt in a big, beautiful world.
The next time you receive a rejection letter, try to be grateful that you have the ability to write in the first place. It's amazing how it changes your perspective. Oh, and read Susan's book.
Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
J.M. Coetze has won the Booker Prize twice and the Nobel prize once. He's won many other prizes for literature as well. So I was anxious to read one of his novels. Slow Man starts out with a lot of promise. The first chapter starts with a bang, literally, as Australian photographer Paul Rayment is hit by a car while on a bicycle. The subsequent injury forces the amputation of his leg and changes the course of his life. He hires a Croation nurse, Marijana, to care for him and then falls in love with her. Unfortunately, Marijana has a husband and three children and she rebuffs his proclamation of love.
Inexplicably, a homeless writer (Elizabeth Costello) shows up at his flat for no reason other than, "I'll be with you for a while yet...For the foreseeable future I am to accompany you." It seems that Elizabeth Costello is writing a novel and Paul is a character in it who must decide what action to take with his life, and his infatuation with Marijana, so that she can finish the novel. Elizabeth seems to know all about him and his desires, as well as when Marijana is coming and going, as if she had created him and the world he inhabits out of her imagination. But if she has, and he is indeed her character, it is unclear why she can't finish her story without him.
Paul grudgingly puts up with Elizabeth moving in with him and nosing her way into all of his business, which doesn't really make sense. She keeps probing him for answers and forcing him to be introspective when all he wants is the Croatian nurse, Marijana.
Coetzee's writing is the jewel in this novel, not the story. The ending is disappointing. Paul's development as a character is mostly non-existent. And we never really figure out why Elizabeth was in the story in the first place.
I will move on to another of Coetzee's novels because I don't think this was his best work even though his writing style was certainly admirable.
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There is something sad about being a parent of a teen boy who is not passionate about reading. You know all that he is missing out on but, for whatever reason, he resists entering those fictional worlds. The writing is way too small. The story is boring. He doesn't like science fiction. He is just picky about what he reads. The list of roadblocks goes on and on. He picks other, more physical activities over reading and whenever downtime occurs, reading novels seems to be the last thing that happens.
However, this boy's reading habits are changing, thanks to James Dashner's book The Maze Runner.
The boy devoured this book and shared it with his book- loving grandmother, who habitually reads endings first.
"If you read the ending first," the boy told her, "I will be heartbroken."
Did you hear that, James Dashner? My former reluctant reader was so enthralled with your book that he would be "heartbroken" if his grandmother didn't share his exact reading experience.
I immediately took him to the bookstore where we bought the next two books in the series. He has already dug in.
I am next in line to read Maze Runner. I can't wait to read the book that changed my teen into a reader. Thank you James Dashner for making that happen.
Today's contest involves "resummarizing" one of the books I am reading during the Bout of Books Read-a-thon 7.0. I guess it's kind of like writing new copy for the jacket flap.
Here's my entry for Elsewhere by Richard Russo.
In this hilarious and heartbreaking memoir, Russo describes the never-ending frustrations of growing up with a mother who is "nervous." His mother is constantly changing the narrative of her life to fit her shifting moods and her love/hate relationship with her hometown of Gloversville, New York. Russo, ever the dutiful son, accommodates his anxiety-ridden mother throughout his entire life, nearly losing his wife in the process. Not until his own daughter is diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder after his mother's death does he realize what demons his mother had been dealing with and begin to see her personality in a whole new light.
One of today's challenges is to create an acrostic poem based on the title of a book. You might recall acrostic poems from elementary school when you had to write your name vertically down the page and come up with an adjective describing yourself starting with each letter of your name.
For the book acrostic poem, there doesn't seem to be any restrictions on whether the words have to be adjectives. Here is my entry, a simple poem describing the basic plot of the book SLAM by Nick Hornby:
Julie Richie is a mother and writer who was inspired to write by the book Beat the Turtle Drum by Constance C. Greene when she was eleven years old.