Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Upstream by Mary Oliver

UpstreamWhat would we do without Mary Oliver? Honestly. Her words, whether prose or poetry, speak to me, like, on a deep level, man.

And that’s how poetic I’m feeling today. 😉 I know she’s one of the more accessible poets out there right now and so some feel her poetry isn’t, I don’t know, as high-brow as some others’. But who the hell cares?

Anyway, I picked up her recent collection of essays, Upstream, from the library and was totally delighted, though not surprised, to find myself at turns reading at break-neck pace, then turning back to previous pages to re-read, then slapping the book down on the mattress to repose in some combination of awe and I don’t know what else… Mary Oliver does this to me. I’m sure you have writers that get you straight in the feels too. I’m struck. I read a passage like the one below and I feel stricken. With, I guess, awe and some feeling of being heard, or included, or just the feeling that the words on the page somehow reflect me or understand me…

“Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.”

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Just a recent view of the river on my walk home from work. You’d never know that this is one of the most urban sections of my walk.

I ask you.

The book is heavy with imagery, especially in the beginning, where each paragraph almost seemed to me like its own poem. Like so:

Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

I generally prefer a quick pace when I’m reading but Mary Oliver is one of the few writers whose work demands that I slow down, dammit. This book definitely follows my current theme—I’ve been reading so many things lately that remind me to pay attention.  I’m doing my best to answer the call.

There are also sections of the book that are guided by narrative, including a tale about happening upon the breeding ground of snapping turtles, the ending of which totally surprised me. I won’t say any more.

Oliver also includes several reflections on those she calls “mentors,” writers who’ve gone before, who’ve paved the way. They include Emerson, Whitman, and Poe, all of whom get a brief bio and so  I learned something new about literary titans I’ve not paid much attention to as they’re not required reading for adults – did you know there’s no required reading for adults? You can, like, read whatever you want whenever you want. Honestly, that’s one of the great joys of my grown-ass life.

This was a long, meandering post, but I think Oliver would be OK with that. I’ll leave you with this gut punch about poetry:

“But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.”

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Big Surprise: Steve Jobs was a Jerk to His Daughter

39218044In case you were wondering whether Steve Jobs was a jerk to the people in his family as well as his colleagues, um, yes. The answer is yes.

I have no real interest in Jobs himself or the tech industry as a whole, honestly, but I do love a good memoir and this one, Small Fry, was written by Jobs’ daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs and gives us a window into the infamous personality of Steve Jobs.

I am personally having feelings about people in positions of power (whether they’re the heads of companies or, you know, countries) who are jerks:
-Why do we put jerks in charge? (Even jerks who are super smart…)
-Why do we let some people act like jerks and not others?
-Why must we suffer the terrible personalities of some people in charge when we could put other, more capable, and more thoughtful people in charge?

I guess I’m a bit world-weary right now. But all that is to say that I really wanted the dirt on Jobs and his personal interactions. I mean, we’ve heard he was a jerk to people he worked with, but what about his family?

A capable writer, Brennan-Jobs details her early life with her mother, artist Chrisann Brennan, and father Steve. She mostly lives with her mother, growing up in the Bay area in and around Silicon Valley, and paints a picture of a young girl very much relying on her parents to tell her who she is, if that makes sense, in the way that we all do. Except that her father is somewhat famous. Certainly everyone knows him in Silicon Valley. So, much of the story is centered on whether Jobs was, at any given moment, acknowledging her as his daughter.

And, all in all, I got the sense that he was kind of a tyrant. Mercurial, irrational, needy, overly generous one moment and painfully withholding the next. A narcissist with boundary issues. Unfortunately, he was most miserly with his love. Brennan-Jobs’ portrayal reminded me of all the books I’ve read about Henry VIII.

Back to my above questions: why do we let some people act the way they do? If it’s because we think we have to let geniuses act like jerks in order to be geniuses, well, that’s a bummer.  And I’m not implying that Lisa could have ousted her father in some way. She was just a child. But I am really just interested in the power dynamics at play in her life. Her mother often depends on him for financial support. Jobs’ wife (Lisa’s step mother) certainly depends on him and she and his other love interests enable his bad behavior in order to curry favor on their own behalf. But what if we stopped catering to jerks? What if these women had stood up to him more often? What if Lisa’s mom had sued for child support (before the state did that on her behalf)?

Of course, maybe that’s un-feminist of me. Maybe these women didn’t feel like they could stand up for themselves?

This is the passage that most explains what I’m driving at:

“When people speak and write about my father’s meanness, they sometimes assume that meanness is linked to genius. That to have one is to get closer to the other. But the way I saw him create was the best part of him: sensitive, collaborative, fun. The friends he worked with got to see this more than I did. Maybe the meanness protected the part that created—so that acting mean to approximate genius is as foolish as trying to be successful by copying his lisp or his walk or the way he turned around and wagged his hands around his back and moaned to pretend he was making out.”

So, I guess, anyone out there acting like a tyrant and posturing that they are, let’s say, a very stable genius, come off it. I have much more respect for people who are confident, kind, self-aware leaders. And I love it when narcissistic jerks get put in their place. We need to do more of that.

This post got messy, but hopefully something about my point came across. Anyway, if you just like reading well-written memoirs and don’t give a fig for Steve Jobs, I’d still recommend this one. Lisa Brennan-Jobs is a talented writer.

 

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Walking

Walking_ThoreauLet’s get real for a minute.

Lately I find I’m reading books that give me permission to be the person I want to be.

Does that make sense?

For example, Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh!, which reassured me that looking was a thing. Yes, of course! Looking. I do this all the time. I cherish the experience. But I needed Athill to name it for me and therefore grant me permission to spend time on it. Isn’t it wonderful when someone reassures you that spending time doing things that achieve nothing is OK? I need that, like, all the time.

Last week, it was Walking by Henry David Thoreau, a pre-Walden lecture he once delivered, which was then published in the Atlantic (you can read the whole thing here).

In it Thoreau lauds the virtues of setting one’s feet out the door and discovering new places, while also giving curmudgeonly voice to his concern at the disappearance of wild territory. Meaning, if we’re not good stewards, there won’t be anything wild left to discover.

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Some wildflowers along the shore of the river. I couldn’t ask for a prettier commute.

On a personal level, I empathized with his need to get out into the natural world. Being in nature affects me on all levels of my being. Even something so simple as a walk through the woods seems to change my brain chemistry for the better. I’m sure there’s some science behind that, but I also just feel it to be true, so that’s enough for me.

Now that it’s not such a swamp in Northern Indiana, I’ve been walking home from work more often and it’s such a joy. I get to totally decompress. I listen to audiobooks. And I just go as slowly as I please and notice all the trees and gardens in people’s yards on the way. It’s cultivated land (which Thoreau does not approve of) and I cross over a polluted river, but you know, I’ll take what I can get on a weeknight.

So, looking and walking. Two simple pleasures that make a world of difference in my point of view and mental state. Thanks, books.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

The Polysyllabic Spree

4260When my favorite book blogger, Sarah of Citizen Reader, suggested an essay reading project for 2018, I thought, man that sounds boring. Essays? But she’s my favorite book blogger and I can be kind of a joiner despite my introvert tendencies, so I went ahead and checked out the first book under discussion: The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity, About a Boy, and a number of other excellent, I assume, novels and memoirs. I haven’t read any of them, honestly. But I loved High Fidelity the movie starring John Cusack.

Anyway, it turns out, I like essays. I’d forgotten that. I mean, I read blogs and articles all the time, and those are kind of like essays. But as soon as you categorize something as an essay, it takes on this heightened status in my head. It starts to feel like a blobby cloud of LITERATURE hanging over me, judging me for not wanting to read it.

But Hornby is a witty guy and he loves books and generally lives a very writer-ly life. And all of that, plus his signature sardonic tone, made this collection of essays, first published separately over a year in The Believer, quite enjoyable.

Things I Liked:

  • At the beginning of each essay are two lists: Books Bought and Books Read. I love seeing what intelligent people read (and buy) and why.  And I love that he includes this directive, “I don’t want anyone writing in to point out that I spend too much money on books, many of which I will never read. I know that already. I certainly intend to read all of them, more or less. My intentions are good. Anyway, it’s my money. And I’ll bet you do it too.”
  • Hornby reads books I don’t really read and it’s great to get exposure to the interests of other people. I don’t care at all about Tobias Wolff, for example, but I’m happy to hear what Hornby has to say about his work.
  • Hornby makes a distinction between “literary” novels and regular novels. He continually asks what the difference is and that became a theme threaded through almost all of the essays.
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The cat ad on the back of the Country Living issue on my nightstand was all the paper I had at hand.

I came away with a few recommendations (see phone pic, right). And as you can see from the scribbled entry “Try to read Mystic River again?,” I enjoyed Hornby’s essays so much that I’m even considering re-trying books I’d given up on. So that’s a plus.

And, bonus: there are three or so more collections just like this one. Gonna’ delve into one of those next.

 

 

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Nonfiction

I’m still reading about how French women do it better

Despite coming across the astute reporting in this 2017 Racked piece with the great title How to Sell a Billion Dollar Myth Like a French Girl, I’m still reading about how French women do it better.

I realize that no woman is perfect, but somehow, as I told Ben last week, the idea that there is a whole class of women out there who eat what they like and don’t get fat, enjoy wine, always look elegant, and wear only matching lingerie somehow gives me hope for myself.

FrenchThe first book I finished last week was All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, Lusts, and Little Secrets of French Women by Helena Frith Powell. This book was great for prying open the myth of the perfect French woman. Frith Powell interviews a dozen or so French women, most known for their contributions to the world of fashion, business, or politics, and runs through their opinions and tips on a slew of style-related topics, from workouts to botox.

The women Frith Powell describes are mostly “pencil thin” and always “well turned out.” Normally, reading things like this would be an opportunity for me to give myself a hard time for my distinct lack of elegance, penchant for junk food, and myriad other sins. But to be completely honest, I felt inspired. It seems like Frith Powell was too. Her writing about these women is part tribute, part exposé with a tone along the lines of “You can’t be the perfect woman all the time…but tell me your secrets just in case!”

And, of course, the book raised my feminist hackles. Are these women really wearing matching lingerie for themselves? Are they really staying stick thin for themselves? Or is this just the patriarchy (apparently alive and well in France) doing some of its best work? Frith Powell gives the impression that it’s some of column A and some of column B.

ParisInLoveAnother woman worshiping with me at the altar of French style is academic and romance writer Eloisa James. I listened to the audiobook version of her memoir Paris in Love last week.

After her breast cancer went into remission, James and her husband, also a professor and originally from Italy, take a teaching sabbatical and move with their two kids to Paris.

James warns us that the memoir began as a series of Facebook posts on her personal account, which she used to keep her family up to date on their lives in Paris. But her observations are so interesting and humorous that they ended up forming a memoir. James is an adept writer with a knack for imagery and creating a narrative in both the short, post-style entries and the longer, more essay-like parts. I found I liked them both but wished some of the short pieces delved deeper into the topics at hand.

Instead, the memoir is a simple but enjoyable reflection on the Parisian lifestyle and her family’s forays into and foibles within it. James covers the usual ground: French parenting, style, weight loss, food, smoking, and romance, among the chief explorations. But she also talks about her children, whom she admits provide most of the humor in the story, as they navigate the local Italian school at different levels.

All in all, two good reads in which to indulge my obsession and I’ll be looking at reading books by both authors in the future.

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Nonfiction, What Ben Read

Tristan Gooley is a Goddamn Treasure

GooleyOne of the classic human trade-offs is gaining technology and forgetting a corresponding skill. We get a cell phone with a built in address book and quickly stop remembering phone numbers. A society develops written language and gives up its oral traditions. GPS gives turn by turn directions and people stop reading maps. Maps themselves are technology, supplanting a more elemental knowledge of how to find our way in the world.

When technology begins to replace skill, the gains are often obvious while the losses, slower and less evident, are only mourned after the fact when it is “too late” to do anything about them. And that’s where our man Gooley comes in. He knows how to navigate in the oldest of old-fashioned ways, using nothing but keen observation with all of his senses. He also has the insight and education to start communicating to us what we have been missing.

Gooley deftly bridges the gap between us and an old skill. He knows exactly what we’ve lost, and he makes a strong case as to why it matters. He speaks the language of the 21st century and seems almost completely at home within it. No wild-eyed prophet crying out in the wilderness here. Just a friendly, erudite voice saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to get out and learn some nifty tricks and secrets about nature and the world around you?”

I just finished “How to Read Nature,” having previously read “The Natural Navigator” and “The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs.**” As you can see by the titles, there is some overlap of themes and material. But at least so far he’s managed to both stick to his broader themes and keep each book fresh and engaging.

If you are considering checking one of them out, “How to Read Nature” is actually a great place to start. It’s brief and compact, with a nice balance of the philosophical and the practical. There were a couple parts where one of his wisecracks didn’t quite land as intended (he’s generally pretty funny) or the flow of the book wasn’t perfectly polished, but these minor quibbles were easy to gloss over.

Gooley really shines when it comes to making his topic approachable. He recommends picking any aspect of nature that one finds interesting and using that as a means to greater understanding of the larger world. Flowers, birds, trees, stars, insects, rocks…it really doesn’t matter. It’s all connected at some level. So start with something that piques your interest and see where it takes you. Gooley peppers the book with brief exercises designed to get the reader started on the path to keener observation.

Meanwhile his obvious enthusiasm shines through on every page as he makes a strong case that we could all enhance our lives by becoming more aware of the natural world around us. I live in the city and grew up in cities. My life is unlikely to ever depend on my ability to locate true north by observing the stars. But having that knowledge gives an extra sense of being grounded in the world and a surprising amount of satisfaction.

4.5/5 trees. Definitely recommend.

** Some of the titles are different for the U.K. editions. If you’re in the U.S., read the U.S. versions. He notes that he has changed some of the specific examples in order to provide more relevant information for North American readers.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter

30231738I know it’s early goings yet, but this book is a definite contender for my favorite book of the year (it wasn’t published this year, but I read it this year).

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill is a collection of essays and memories written and published by the author/retired editor in her 90s.

If you haven’t read anything by Athill, I highly recommend you do so. She’s a distinct personality and that comes through in her writing, which, I know it’s cliche to say, is both poignant and humorous and most of the time humorously poignant.

Each chapter covers a specific memory or topic. Or memories as the vehicle for addressing big topics that include but are not limited to Athill’s miscarriage, aging, her childhood in Norfolk, fashion, WWII, colonialism in the Caribbean, her various love affairs, and her preference for being the “other woman.”

She writes it all in matter-of-fact prose with acknowledgement of her own “prosaic” tendencies. And yet, she does cover beauty, writing a passage on “looking” that, I’ll admit, gave me permission to enjoy a pastime I couldn’t have put a name to, which is looking, observing, really seeing something that interests you.

“Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. And giving me this book, of memories, thoughts and reflections, which does – roughly – add up to being a report on what living for ninety-seven years has taught one rather lucky old woman.”

SargentPortrait

 A pic I took on my phone to remember the moment

Personally, I think of wandering the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I went for the first time last summer. I was in a state of bliss, content to stand in front of the Sargent portraits til my eyeballs fell out. Now I know that looking is a thing, I’m going to spend more time doing it.

I also found out that I am not alone in how I have grown to perceive poetry and its place in my reading life over time.

“However, when someone asks me for my favourite poem and I answer Lear’s ‘ The Owl and the Pussy Cat ’, I am not being facetious. I really do prefer poems which tell a story to those that plumb the depths of experience, and those that depend largely on associations hooked up into a poet’s mind by words and images are lost to me. I read to see something, not to decipher codes.”

This was so validating for me. I got the impression that living life in your 90s is very freeing in the sense that you don’t worry about what people think of you (which Athill confirms for herself in the last chapter of the book). Wouldn’t it be great if I could give myself permission to live like that now?

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