The Writing Life

“I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.” (The Writing Life by Annie Dillard)


The Writing Life CoverThere are two ways to explain something complicated. One is the direct approach. You come at the subject like a bulldozer, front and center, ramming into the pile of knowledge over and over until it is orderly and clear. The other approach is more mysterious, less direct. You sneak up on the subject, hoping not to scare off its complexity, and you wait for it to reveal itself. To get at the entirety, you might find yourself resorting to poetry, analogy, metaphor in order to hint at your subject without diminishing it.

Unlike most who write about writing, Annie Dillard approaches her subject in the second way – indirectly. She loosely connects stories, random thoughts, bits of poetry, and examples from famous writers’ lives to lead the reader down a mental path that points towards truth. In short, this book is a place where a writer might come, when blinded by the fear of one’s craft, in order be caught up by the unfamiliar. Then, instead of thinking of your own struggle with your work, you’ll think of the inchworm, inching its way into nothingness. The doomed pilot, feeling the rhythm in the air. The rower, rowing all night against the tide. It is very possible that disjointed stories like these will awaken the side of your brain needed more than tired, unexplained strictures about quote attribution and proper hyphenation.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow NowBorrow SometimesAvoid 
Length: 111
Ending: Indirect
Incidental Learning: Pilots, inchworms, how to find honey, facts about famous authors, etc
Further Reading: If the indirect approach is your preferred method of learning – stay way from Stephen King’s much lauded On WritingProbably the only thing that would satisfy you after this book is more Dillard.

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Bird by Bird

“Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker with be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime…” (Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott)

Bird by Bird CoverReading Anne Lamott is an experience akin to spending an afternoon chatting with a beloved, slightly annoying, friend. Sometimes she’ll ramble around conversationally, telling anecdote after anecdote, outrunning and completely forgetting her original point. Other times, she’ll confess something so intimate and original that you’ll feel less ashamed and alone in the world because you share your monstrous/weird/selfish thoughts with another person who seems to be doing OK.

I can’t help but compare Bird by Bird, a guide to creativity and writing, to An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler, a guide to creativity and cooking. While Lamott shares excerpts from her life and her experience, not wishing to impose upon the reader, Adler prescribes, bullies, and threatens, aiming to change the readers’ ideas using whatever method possible. I think that both guides could be excellent in a creative crisis. You could come to Lamott for a little sympathy and inspiration, then go to Adler to be smacked over the head with the rolling pin of self-confidence. Personally, I think that this type of guide should be written for all types of art – so that we could look through the narrow lens of each subject to see how to live a creative life.

Does anyone have a recommendation for their favorite guide to creativity and [insert art subject]?

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR Avoid
Length: 237 pgs.
Ending: the cathartic writing experience
Incidental Learning: how writers live
Further Reading: The Everlasting Meal, or any other creative guide you’ve come across.

Infinite Jest

“If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility, like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. You will find… that people addicted to a Substance who abruptly stop ingesting the Substance often suffer wicked papular acne, often for months afterward, as the accumulations of a Substance slowly leave the body… That females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males… That some people really do look like rodents…” (Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace)

Infinite Jest Cover

Infinite Jest the book is the complete opposite of its subject, Infinite Jest the fatally entertaining film. If the book has a plot, it is that a mysterious entertainment cartridge labeled only with a smiley face is circulating the country; everyone who watches it is so entertained they loose all desire to do anything else with their lives. The book revolves around the family of the man who made the entertainment, the cross-dressing American investigator and wheel-chaired Canadian separatist looking for it, and the hideously deformed/fatally perfect cocaine addict who starred in it. In contrast to the film, reading Infinite Jest is hardly entertaining at all.

The pleasure derived from the work is so far removed from the act of reading it that the pleasure’s origin is hardly recognizable. The reading experience is so unfamiliar, so blocked by extra phrases, pedantic descriptions of drugs and tennis, and laborious endnotes, that your mind is working too hard to grasp its nuances while actually reading. The intense pleasure, the hilarity and brilliance, somehow come after, while your mind is subconsciously sorting through the inanity. You’ll often find that a half-hour session spent reading Infinite Jest will yield only frustration, but later you’ll be struck by an original and perfect thought that you’ll swear came fully formed from your own mind, until you remember that boring book you were reading earlier…

For example, you’ll see a GIF out of the corner of your eye and think ‘Is that Mr. Bouncety Bounce?’ before you realize that Mr. Bouncety Bounce is a disturbing adult dressed like a baby who appears on television only in Infinite Jest.  You’ll make a passing reference to Identification or your Own Personal Daddy and then register that those terms don’t have much meaning to the general populace, but have somehow become part of the way that you think and express yourself. You’ll be reading in a room of crazy people (read: library) who are singing unawares with their headphones on or dancing to no music at all, and you’ll find out that you’re the craziest of them all because you’ve been laughing for three minutes already without even noticing.

The act of reading infinite jest may not be consistently entertaining, it may be a rather poor experience in fact, but you’ll find that your head is a much more interesting, unexpected place to be as a result of the effort. So I can’t make any judgments on the book as a whole now. I am going to wait. I expect my mind will be pulling it together for some time yet.

Recommended Action: I couldn’t say. Read it if you are willing to commit approximately 6 weeks of a reading life to a book that is at once hilarious, disgusting, boring, brilliant, pedantic, and experimental.
Length: 1078  6″x 9.2″ pages in aprox. 10pt font with 100 pages of 6 pt. endnotes.
Ending: So far, outrageously disappointing. Pulls nothing together, resolves nothing, and is, frankly, disgusting. We’ll see how I feel about it tomorrow.
Incidental Learning: You will learn more than you ever needed to know about recreational drugs, half-way houses, AA, Tennis, physical deformities, and modern art films.
Further Reading: This should probably be prior reading. You should be familiar with Hamlet, obviously, but I also found just having read A Clockwork Orange incredibly helpful – there are similar thematic overtones and Wallace borrows a lot from Burgess’s language and style.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen

RelishFood memoirs make life seem as though it has a purpose, an overarching constant that holds a person’s story together. Like the memoirists were always meant to become people who love food from the first time that they tried pickles, or sushi, or a fresh tomato. I come from an extended family of people who mostly distrust the whole institution of eating real food, but I love to imagine that I also had foodie experiences from a young age, and that there is a nostalgic excuse for my love of cooking. Food memoirs help me with this partial re-writing of my past.

This particular memoir is also a graphic novel, complete with cartoon instructions for simple, creative dishes. The cartooning style reminds me a lot of the Silver Spoon for Children by Phaidon, and it seems to me that pictures of food, no mater if they are photographs or cartoons, always make me crave the dish itself. The cartoons help to emphasize the author’s attitude towards food – that it’s casual, fun, and should be taken lightly. This is the perfect book to read with a lovely breakfast when you believe yourself to be fed up with the daily task of cooking.

relish exerpt Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow TBRAvoid

  Length: 176 pgs.

  Ending: photo journal

  Further Reading: Another not-so-serious food memoir is A Homemade    

   life by Molly Wizenberg.

The Book of Tea

“The outsider may indeed wonder at this seeming much ado about nothing. What a tempest in a tea-cup! he will say. But when we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup. Mankind has done worse.” (The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo)

As much as this blog has to do with books, it also has to do with tea. Okakura Kakuzo’s poetic history of tea and brief treatise of eastern vs. western culture is a thin must-read for the combined book and tea lover. Read it to delight in Okakura Kakuzo’s incredible use of language and celebration of this favorite of beverages, but don’t dismiss this book as a sweet little thing – Okakura doesn’t shy away from philosophy or spirituality here and he might exercise some of your less-used reading muscles.

Since I do recommend a beverage to go with each book, and as that beverage is more often tea than not, I am going to give a little ‘tea staples’ guide here. I am also currently stocking up my own tea library after having neglected it for some time, and plan to purchase as much as I can of the below. There are few things worse than knowing the perfect tea for the occasion but being unable to drink it!

Black:

Vanilla Black by Rishi Tea – one of the few vanilla teas I’ve had where the bitterness of the black tea doesn’t overpower the vanilla. Instead they work in perfect harmony to produce a robust, flavorful tea even on the second brew.

English Breakfast by Twinings – although Twinings has recently adapted a horrid new cover design, their tea is as classic as ever and English Breakfast is simply a must have for daily occasions.

Lady Grey by Twinings – a lovely floral twist on the classic bergamot flavor of Earl Grey. This is a lighter, happier cup of tea than the classic English Breakfast and would compliment a sunny spring day wonderfully.

Oolong:

Iron Goddess of Mercy by Rishi Tea – my absolute favorite daily tea. It withstands the most neglectful brewing and always comes up with the perfect blend of smoky, bitter and light flavors.

Green:

Jasmine Pearls by Rishi Tea – expensive but absolutely worthwhile when you compare this jasmine to your normal, washed-out, watery supermarket variety. The jasmine works with the green tea instead of perfuming the whole palette, so you still get that grassy, slightly bitter tea flavor underneath.

Organic Hojicha by Mighty Leaf – a dark, smoky tea almost reminiscent of Genmaicha (popcorn tea). It has surprising and most unusual flavor and is conveniently packaged in a silk bag.

White: I haven’t found a consistent white tea favorite, but white tea usually goes well with a light sort of flavoring such as pear, cocoanut or ginger and I am sure that Mighty Leaf or Rishi have several lovely examples.

As far as other notable teas go, Rishi’s Masala Chai and its Organic Cinnamon plum are luxurious and exotic flavors. When it is available (usually around the holidays), Tazo’s Joy tea is a nice, sharp blend of black, green and oolong

George and Martha

“George was fond of peeking in windows.” (George and Martha, James Marshall)

This year I used Christmas cards as yet another opportunity to spread the word about good books. The bookstore where I work had some discounted cards illustrated by none other than James Marshall. Once I had them, I couldn’t resist putting in some juicy tidbits and personalized recommendations in each card because the lightness and humor of George and Martha should spread cheer and delight the whole year through.

I simply can not get enough of these two friends; the sentences are simple, almost to the point of poetry, the drawings are bright and sunny, and the stories about friendship never fail to make me laugh aloud. I know that critics and book-cover-reviewers are overly fond of the phrase ‘for all ages’ but James Marshall’s work truly does have two (if not more) distinct levels. Not only can the humor be read in two different ways, but the stories themselves are deceptively profound examples of healthy relationships.

Beverage: Unless you get all of the works of George and Martha together, the book will only take a few minutes to peruse, but it is still probably worth making a cup of hot chocolate (maybe with the smell of a pot of split pea soup boiling in the background.)

Reminds me of… Jeeves and Wooster in a way because both have that smiling, light-hearted humor that I so prize.

Zorgamazoo

“You see, these were the days (and the evenings) of yore,
when the earth was exciting and less of a bore
back then it was brimming with creatures and things
like dragons and ogres and griffins with wings.

Our planet, back then, was a wondrous affair,
And boredom itself was exceedingly rare.”
(Zorgamazoo, Robert Paul Weston)

I have become increasingly smitten with books that deal with overcoming boredom/tedium/ennui or whatever you’d like to call it. It is such an important, daily problem and I am completely flummoxed as to why it is only dealt with in children’s literature. It seems to me that adults are the ones who generally need to be saved from the dread demon Trivium, and not the other way around. Pascal, of course, had some rather good thoughts about ennui, but sometimes I crave a more adventurous solution to boredom than locking myself in my room…

Zorgamazoo is much more than your run-of-the-mill boredom-busting book. It is, in itself, an adventure in writing; for all two hundred and eighty eight pages are written in couplets! These aren’t your ordinary rhyming sentences, where the couplet is completely expected and dull, either: they are nice, juicy rhymes that never cease to delight. Zorgamazoo, as one might expect, won some awards for being an excellent read-aloud book. I am sure that it is fabulous to read aloud, and I plan on doing it myself sometime, but one can’t overlook the interesting formatting, fonts, and drawings that litter every page. It seems to me that only hearing this book would definitely take something away from it, and I only wish that there had been a read-it-to-yourself or make-sure-to-look-at-the-pages award to complement the E.B. White one.

Beverage: As this is a book that explicitly warns against boredom, you have to be very careful not to sip your daily brew. I feel like something lemony and sour with flavors too big to be gulped would do the trick.

Reminds me of… The Phantom Tollbooth, The Secret Garden, and A Wrinkle In Time, other favorite books which deal with this interesting problem.