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

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.

River

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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