Posts Tagged ‘books’

I’m still a schoolgirl when it comes to summer’s end.  I dread the fall.  Pumpkins and football games make me anxious. Give me hot, humid weather, a little body odor, and a good book every time.


Speaking of good books, there’s still a few weeks to enjoy summer reading.  On a friend’s recommendation, I’ve been reading everything by Barbara Trapido that I can find. (Temples of Delight is my favorite so far.)  I can’t resist British humor and eccentric characters.  Also been reading Elizabeth Bowen, another British writer.  She’s as somber as Trapido is delightful, but oh, those sentences!  I don’t cry reading too many books, but  The House in Paris left me stunned and weepy.


On a lighter note, my summer song this year is “Pata Pata,” by Miriam Makeba.  Link here for the best audio version, but be sure to watch this video of Makeba singing the song.  Great set, great costumes, and Makeba’s stage presence is enchanting. I’m a Johnny-come-lately to “Pata Pata”–it was released in 1957–but it sounds current to me and I can’t stop dancing to it.  Makeba, an anti-apartheid activist, breast cancer survivor (at age 18), wife of Stokey Carmichael, and international star, is long due for a bio-pic.


So what have you been reading this summer?  And what’s your summer song?


Read Full Post »

reading by Pacu007Books in the bathroom are as essential as toilet paper.  But not to be used for the same purpose, except in cases of emergency.  And then only if the book is already full of what it will be full of if used for such purposes.


For one (back to reading books, not wiping with them), keeping books handy in the bathroom is a tricky way to get the residents of your household reading.  It’s also a proven method of reading something yourself that you wouldn’t find the time to read in any other room of your abode.


The perfect bathroom book can either be read in one sitting or has self-contained chapters or segments that can be digested in 5 to 10 minutes.  The Perfect Bathroom Book has illustrations, although an exception is made for books of poetry and Helen Vendler’s book about Emily Dickinson’s poetry.


Here are a few of the books in my bathrooms:


Stupor by Steve Hughes is a favorite, but not appropriate for all readers


In my bathroom:

The puzzle book has never been used but I can't get rid of it


The girls’ bathroom:

The book of brain teasers was mine from girlhood, obviously a keeper


One more:

No one said P.B.B.'s have to be highbrow


If you’re tired of the angel books you’ve had in your bathroom for the past ten years and you’re ready for something a little more fun or provocative, I found a new source for P.B.B.’s when I was in Chestertown, Maryland a few weekends ago.


DSC_0035 by Jody C.Idiots’ Books is small press in Chestertown that produces small books.  Husband and wife team Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr write, illustrate and publish their little gems from an old barn downtown where they live with two young children.  The books are offbeat, clever, charming, disarming and sometimes warming.


I bought The Baby is Disappointing, Facial Features of French Explorers, Homer Was an Epic Poet, and my favorite, The Nearly Perfect Sisters of the Holy Bliss, at a local Chestertown bookstore.  You can buy them individually online or through a subscription service:  6 books a year for $60.


Note: the books are illustrated but they are not children’s books.  You can see more on the Idiots’ Books website.  Even if you don’t want to buy, check out the couple’s blog.  Theirs is a charmed life, at least from the vantage point of my bathroom.

Read Full Post »


I gave up writing rhymed poetry a long time ago.  In grade school I composed limericks about other people at recess (not an avenue to popularity, believe me); in college I once wrote a truly awful sonnet that included the word “manacle,” and to my everlasting shame, I entered it in a poetry contest.  Since then the only metered and rhymed poetry I’ve attempted have been jokey re-writes of song lyrics for birthday celebrations.  But no more.  I stumbled upon a wonderful book that’s convinced me it’s worth trying some of the traditional forms once again.  Not because I’m going to be the next Robert Frost, but because if something was really, really fun in fifth grade, it’s worth trying again decades later.  (This dictum does not apply to prank phone calls and tabulating rules for secret clubs.)


The book is The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. Fry is one of those British geniuses for whom one profession is not enough.*  Actor, journalist, playwright, novelist, comedian, film director, and these days a Tweeter with 2 million followers, he’s the type of person who makes everyone else feel like a mushroom, colorless and dopey.


Subtitled Unlocking the Poet Within, the book opens with Fry’s “embarrassing secret”:  he writes poetry.  He claims to write average poetry (but I have my doubts) and compares his hobby with those of friends who build boats or play instruments.  You don’t have to be a master to enjoy writing poems.  “In an open society,” he writes, “everything the mind and hands can achieve is our birthright.  It is up to us to claim it.”


With a series of exercises and engaging tutorials on meter and rhyme, Fry encourages his readers to write their own poems.  “Talent is inborn but technique is learned,” he says. Like a ballet teacher breaking down a dance sequence into steps, Fry walks the novice poet through traditional forms of poetry.  He begins with an exercise in unrhymed iambic tetrameter, and a few chapters later is demanding a rondeau redouble.


Still hesitant to versify? Fry breaks down the reasons you may be resisting:


I believe poetry is a primal impulse within us all.  I believe we are all capable of it and furthermore that a small, often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it.  I believe our poetic impulse is blocked by the false belief that poetry might on the one hand be academic and technical and on the other formless and random.  It seems to many that while there is a clear road to learning music, gardening or watercolours, poetry lies in inaccessible marshland: no pathways, no signposts, just the skeletons of long-dead poets poking through the bog and the unedifying sight of living ones floundering about in apparent confusion and mutual enmity.  Behind it all, the dread memory of classrooms swollen into resentful silence while the English teacher invites us to “respond” to a poem.



Fry might be vaguely familiar to you if you’ve seen The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (he was the narrator) or the television series Jeeves and Wooster (he was Jeeves).  Look for him as Robert Downey Jr.’s older brother in the upcoming Sherlock Holmes sequel.








(*Clive James, author of my favorite laugh-out-loud read, Unreliable Memoirs, is another of this type.)




Read Full Post »

The other night I made a discovery at the library.  It was the most excited I’d been at the library since I got a $25 fine waived by a sympathetic clerk who had no knowledge of my shameful history of overdue books.

My heart was pumping happily along as the discovery unfolded before me, until I realized that my discovery had absolutely no significance.  It explained nothing, it made no connections worth pondering, it advanced human knowledge nary a hair’s breadth.  It was in fact mere coincidence.

What I “discovered” was along the lines of the intriguing similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy that used to get passed around among middle-schoolers.  (This list was surely propagated by someone who wanted to lend Kennedy the air of Lincoln’s presidential greatness by making comparisons such as this one: Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater; Kennedy was shot in a Lincoln, made by Ford.)

I was leafing through Harold Bloom’s new anthology of last poems (Till I End My Song).  I skipped over most of the poems because they were a little depressing and harder to read than I had energy for, spending time instead with Bloom’s brief biography of each poet. When I got to English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I had a eureka! moment (which as I’ve said, ended up being a ur-a-quack-er moment).  Coleridge had much in common with a writer who was born almost exactly 100 years later, Stephen Crane, who I had just poem-elfed.

Both men were both plagued by lifelong money and health problems, but that was not unusual for writers in their time.  What rises to the level of coincidence is this:

  • Both men were the 14th sons of clergymen.
  • Both were eight when their fathers died.
  • Both were precocious and incessant readers as children, and became brilliant young men who left college before graduating.

Drum roll for my favorite coincidence:

  • They share the same initials!

File under Useless Information and enjoy your weekend.

Read Full Post »

Just wanted to share a collage my daughter made using a picture she had taken for her photography class and a paraphrase of a favorite passage of mine.  The paraphrase is taken from Life of the Beloved, by Henri J. M. Nouwen, a Catholic priest who died in 1996.  Nouwen wrote the book following a request from a secular friend, journalist Fred Bratman, to explain the spiritual life to a non-spiritual audience.

The particular passage that I love begins with the idea that every situation, good or bad, leaves us with a choice to be bitter or grateful.

“When an event turns out well, it could always have turned out better; when a problem is solved, there often emerges another in its place; when a relationship is restored, there is always the question: ‘For how long?’;  when a wound is healed, there still can be some leftover pain. . . Where there is a reason for gratitude, there can always be found a reason for bitterness.  It is here that we are faced with the freedom to make a decision.  We can decide to be grateful or to be bitter.

[Nouwen describes the mentally handicapped residents he lives and works with as people who continually choose to be grateful and holds them up as models to follow.]

. . . When we keep claiming the light, we will find ourselves becoming more and more radiant. What fascinates me so much is that every time we decide to be grateful it will be easier to see new things to be grateful for.  Gratitude begets gratitude, just as love begets love.”

November ushers in a season of sunless days in my state.  I’ll keep this collage on hand for when the dreariness gets the upper hand.

Read Full Post »

Spotlight on another gift today, one that my mother gave me a few months ago, a gift that was unconnected to any celebration.  How wonderful is that! To my list of what kind of gifts are best, add the following:  a gift given for no reason other than the giver thought the recipient would really like it.  I saw this and thought of you. Or in the case of this gift, pictured above, I saw on your blog that you didn’t understand Emily Dickinson and the next day I happened to read a review of this book and I thought it might be helpful. My mother’s gift is all the more unexpected and sweet because she is not one for impulse or indulgent purchases.  Frugality is the instinct of her generation but also of her particular circumstance.  In raising eleven children with a constant worry that the family was headed to the poorhouse, she learned to do without.  Which is an understatement for someone who served powdered milk, sewed her own clothes, and wrapped presents in newspaper comics.

Thank you, Mom!  The book is a wonder.  It’s the perfect bathroom book and I say this not because the pages are like silk and in a pinch would feel not unpleasant on my bummy.  You can dip into the book at any point, read two or three pages, and flush with the accomplished feeling that you understand a new poem. Poetry scholar Helen Vendler takes 150 of Dickinson’s poems and not only explains them, she opens each one up, throws the doors wide open and amazes readers with how much is going on behind Dickinson’s plain style and compact verses. I’m in awe of Helen Vendler almost as much as Dickinson.  She’s a perfect guide.  How nice it would be to have Ms. Vendler take me by the hand through the halls of poetry, pointing out things I hadn’t noticed and explaining what I thought I couldn’t understand.

She’s an interesting gal, this Helen Vendler.  She majored in chemistry as an undergrad and got a Fulbright scholarship to study math, but here she is, one of our most esteemed literary critics.  You can read a wonderful interview with her here, where she weighs in on everything from the importance of memorizing poetry to how her study of science relates to her work with poetry.  I just love her big big brain and good sense.

She’s written a book on Shakespeare’s sonnets in a similar format to the Dickinson one.  As long as I’ve got presents on the brain, I might as well mention that if anyone related to me is thinking about Christmas presents, her Shakespeare book is at the top of my list.

all ready for Helen

I really could use a new book in the guest bathroom.

Read Full Post »