Author Archives: Julie Larios

Reading Aloud

mother readingJPG

Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve my mom reading aloud to me and to my older brother and sister, John and Mary. At first, it was nursery rhymes and the poems of Eugene Field and Robert Louis Stevenson. Later came  Little Golden Books illustrated by Garth Williams. Once I hit elementary school, the “chapter books” (the phrase still thrills me) started: All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor turned me into a New-York-ophile for life.  Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater made me realize adults could be foolish dreamers, too; Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink helped me weather the world as a tomboy; Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Lewis taught me how big – and small – the world was, Rifles for Watie  by Harold Keith – oh, Rifles for Watie! Mom cried, I cried, everybody cried.

Jesse Wilcox Smith

Jesse Wilcox Smith

Bedtime – time to read the next chapter! And when the chapter was finished, it was “Sleep tight,” and then the light were turned off. I fell asleep dreaming I was a soldier spy, I was a girl dancing at a hoedown, I was riding in a Chinese junk on a yellow river half-way around the world.

sant_fairy_tale

James Sant – “The Fairy Tale”

Bob Bloyd, my 6th-grade teacher at Booksin Elementary School in San Jose, California, also read aloud to the class each day – usually right before we got dismissed. He sent us home with the stories of Mark Twain, Jack London and Rudyard Kipling echoing around in our heads.  Since then I’ve always kept a short list of “People Who Can Read Me to Sleep” – usually well-known people whose voices appeal to me: James Earl Jones, of course; Jeremy Irons, who made the list after I listened to him read “Lolita”; Paul Auster, whose voice is smooth as butter; Seamus Heaney, with his Irish lilt; and (my personal favorite) Shelby Foote – I could listen to his soft voice forever (when you have time, take in this series of interviews of Foote talking about his childhood, especially what he says about his teachers in Video #3.)

The sound of a voice that transports you to other worlds….that’s what I wanted to give my children, and – I admit – I did it just as much for myself as for them, because I loved the way time slowed down at bedtime – there was nothing more enjoyable. And now my daughter is reading aloud each night to my grandson. He started early with books.

Jackson Reading Books

Now, seven years later and headed for second grade, he’s moved from picture books over to middle grade fiction.  Some of the bedtime stories his mom is reading to him  are old-fashioned  – Half-Magic by Edward Eager, The Borrowers by Mary Norton. These older books beg to be read aloud, since quick explanations (about words and word usage) help grease the gears and keep things running smoothly. My grandson enjoyed those two books as much as he enjoyed Harry Potter, and I ‘m positive that the pleasure came from the stories being shared with his mom.  I know that when I read Alice in Wonderland to my kids, we enjoyed it most because we were laughing together when the wordplay got silliest. Laughter shared with a child is so delicious.

Now the New York Times reports that the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that parents read aloud with their children. It’s sad to think that hasn’t been done before – what were they waiting for? But I’m not going to get crabby.  I’m just going to say “Hooray! “

716px-Cassatt_Mary_Nurse_Reading_to_a_Little_Girl_1895

Mary Cassatt

For a look at the read-aloud moment with a slightly different twist, follow this link to Cody Walker’s wonderful post at The Kenyon Review, in which he talks about reading The Science Times aloud to his 7-month-old daughter.

Mother Reading to Children

James Shannon

 

Elizabeth Shippen Green

Elizabeth Shippen Green

On Delight, Despair and…Musical Chairs

cat_musical_chairs

Two things happened this week which made me pause amid the busy-ness of every day life (painting a bedroom, reorganizing the linen cupboard.)  The first was my grandson’s birthday. He is  seven wonderful years old – a whirlwind, a dreamer,a talker  – and his imagination never stops. He’s learning to play the piano and recently performed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the one-handed  version on piano) by heart in front of a live audience of adoring parents and grandparents at a pizza parlor in Eugene, Oregon. We’ll have a little family party in Seattle for him this weekend when he comes up with his parents, and we have two presents this time around that he’ll get with the usual books and art supplies and stickers – one is a Superman robot with helicopter blades attached to his head (he flies up and down – not forward, not backward, apparently – and spins via remote control – not fancy, but fancy enough for a seven-year-old) and another is the same thing only the figure is Batman. Great stuff, if I do say so. I mean, who wouldn’t want helicopter blades that could make them levitate? Of such imaginings, delight is made.

The second thing that happened was a posting on Facebook by my good friend Leda Schubert that quoted Tomi Ungerer (“A talent without despair is hardly useful”) and asked for comments. I replied that I might revise that to read, “hardly interesting,” believing as I do that quite a lot of fascinating art comes from melancholy, dissatisfaction, darkness (think Maurice Sendak.) Within hours, a different person replied by saying, “Sorry but, blah blah blah. What is your comment? I am not interested in talent or despair.

Not interested in talent? Not interested in despair? Whoa. That threw me for a loop.  You can be interested in happiness, that’s fine with me – who isn’t? But to the exclusion of sorrow? And why not interested in talent? I suspect that the comment was not meant to be as flip as it sounded.

I also suspect sometimes that I have a dark edge that bumps up against the sweet world of children’s books and their authors -  a very kind and happy bunch of people, I’ve learned. I like their influence on me, and I thank them for keeping me slightly more balanced than I used to be when I was just writing poetry for adults (no shortage of despair in some of that.) But I do wonder from time to time about the energy it takes to approach the world “without a cry, without a prayer, / with no betrayal of despair” as Tennessee Williams put it. It exhausts me, the idea of trying to do that. Is that what the commenter on Leda’s post meant when he said he’s “not interested in despair.” Maybe he thinks it’s exhausting, and doesn’t want to go there. Or does he just not want anyone to mention it? Or was he just kidding, and I missed the humor of it?

Seems to me that not being interested in sorrow would eliminate about 51% (maybe more – 99%? -  let’s just say a great deal) of all the music, visual art, dance, film, theater and literature that is produced out of discomfort, melancholy, grief, or any of  the million small heartaches that move us to create – a longing for home, a dream gone up in smoke, missing someone, running out of hope. Those things happen in life, and to express disinterest feels very odd to me. “All you have to do,” I replied again on Leda’s Facebook page, “is listen to a sad fiddle tune or a good Rhythm and Blues song to know how interesting despair can be and how intricately it is linked to creativity.”

Detail from Pieter Bruegel's "Children's Games."

Detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s  “Children’s Games.”

The intersection of the Happy Birthday moment and the Not Interested in Talent or Despair moment came yesterday when I read a poem  by Josephine Jacobsen, a Canadian poet whose work I’m looking into for one of my Undersung essays over at Numero Cinq. She wrote the following poem about children playing musical chairs at a birthday party. It has delight, it has sorrow – neither one eclipses the other. The two together deepen each other, don’t they?

Seems to me that the lesson to remember is this, so basic that it’s got to be true:  Don’t worry about those two crayons in the Crayola box – Delight and Despair. Use them liberally. Both – light and dark – make your work interesting.

Hope you all enjoy Jacobsen’s poem as I did – the terza rima form seems perfect for something that looks at a children’s game. It has a nursery rhyme feel to it, but packs a punch.  I bet both melancholy and delight played a role in her writing it.  We see the children running, we hear their eager cries, we worry about that dark slope, and we know that “somewhere hidden” there is “the shape of bliss.”

The Birthday Party  by Josephine Jacobsen

The sounds are the sea, breaking out of sight,
and down the green slope the children’s voices
that celebrate the fact of being eight.

One too few chairs are for desperate forces:
when the music hushes, the children drop
into their arms, except for one caught by choices.

In a circle gallops the shrinking crop
to leave a single sitter in hubris
when the adult finger tells them: stop.

There is a treasure, somewhere easy to miss.
In the blooms? by the pineapple-palms’ bark?
somewhere, hidden, the shape of bliss.

Onto the pitted sand comes highwater mark.
Waves older than eight begin a retreat;
they will come, the children gone, the slope dark.

One of the gifts was a year, complete.
There will be others: those not eight
will come to be eight, bar a dire defeat.

On the green grass there is a delicate
change; there is a change in the sun
though certainly it is not truly late,

and still caught up in the scary fun,
like a muddle of flowers blown around.
For treasure, for triumph, the children run

and the wind carries the steady pound,
and salty weight that falls, and dies,
and falls. The wind carries the sound

of the children’s light high clear cries.

Musical-Chairs-300x225

By the way, today is Poetry Friday.  Head over to Violet Nesdoly’s blog to see her round-up of what people around the KidLitOSphere have posted.

And by the way again, if you didn’t have time to check out the link to Ode to Joy above, take time to do it now. It’s the Flash Mob in Spain version – all delight. ———————————————————–

Swimming in Proust

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

In mid-May my book discussion group will meet to discuss Swann’s Way, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s 7-volume masterpiece,  In Search of Lost Time.   We’re not taking on the whole seven volumes, of course – if any of us want to do that, we’ll do it on our own. But this overdue introduction to Proust (how is it I never got around to reading his work before this?) can be enough for now. I’m not sure how well we’ll all do with this book – book club members take Proust on with uneven results (click here for one take on that.)

Possible Book Club Reaction

Possible Book Club Reaction

Happily, I’m loving the book – no real surprise there, since I ask little from the plot line of a book and a lot from the language. Proust, who writes long, complicated sentences (even Proust’s whole name – Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust – is Proustian!) can be challenging, but I like his digressive style, and I particularly like the way he plays with temporality and the idea that memories change the smell, sight, taste, texture and music of the present moment. I like to linger and float with a story – I need to move forward only so often. This ability to linger isn’t shared by everyone. An editor once said  to Proust’s brother, “My dear friend, perhaps I am dense, but I just don’t understand why a man should take 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim.”

Swimming. Precisely. I like my head – my whole body – to swim in a piece of fiction, and I often shoot for that effect in my poetry.  Sometimes submersion is a good thing, and my natural inclination as a reader and a writer is to get a little obsessive about (and totally soaked to the skin by) anything that captures my interest [see ** note below.] When I read, I read in a trance. And during my more lucid moments with Swann’s Way, I dog paddle by doing Proust-related research.

I hunt up Proust’s precise landscape on the Internet…

The village of Illiers-Combray.

The village of Illiers-Combray.

I find a picture of his bed at Aunt Leonie’s house…

Proust Slept Here

Proust Slept Here

I look up a recipe for the very famous madeleine (sugar, flour, eggs, butter, salt, rosewater…aha, there’s the Proust: rosewater!):..

l_5181_madeleine“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake . . . a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it…. but ….as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me …. immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage…” (from Swann’s Way.)

I imagine myself learning French and reading Proust in the original. “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: ‘Je m’endors.’ ”

And while I’m at it (speaking French), wouldn’t it be nice to go to France and see the original manuscripts…?

First Proofs - Swann's Way

First Proofs – Swann’s Way

I imagine the trip…I go to the Proust Museum. I drive around Normandy in a Peugeot. I read the remaining six volumes of In Search of Lost Time in a nice little cafe every morning for several months.  I order tea and a madeleine every day.  I write postcards home…

proust stamp

Chère famille, je suis toujours là en France. Je nage dans Proust.

I buy an old farmhouse and restore it…

Chez Julie

Chez Julie

also, considering Proust’s lifestyle, I buy a townhouse in Paris…

Paris Townhouse

and at night (no matter where I sleep) I take at least 30 pages to turn over in bed….

Viking/Penguin Classics came out with a new translation of the first volume, by the novelist Lydia Davis, about ten years ago, and now it’s true, I’m swimming in it. Maybe growing gills would be a good idea? It’s hard to come up and breathe the regular air when you’ve been spending afternoons with Proust. As if that weren’t enough, I’m trying to read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life before our discussion because I think it will help me understand the profound effect this book has had on some writers I admire – both in terms of their own writing and in terms of the way they see the world.

There’s no guarantee I’ll love Swann’s Way through to the last page. But I’ll be glad to have read it. I’ll end here with this quotation from Proust. It’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever come across – it’s true, and it’s basic: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” When writing teachers say, “Make it new,” that’s what they mean.

———————————————-

**Note: I say “swim,” but other people describe it in a less complimentary way. Consider this review of Proust’s work by another author whose writing I admire, Alexander Wollcott: “Reading Proust is like bathing in someone else’s dirty water.”

Closer Look at Woman in the Bath by Pierre Bonnard

Closer Look at Woman in the Bath by P. Bonnard

Ah, well  – that’s what’s fun about a book discussion group: so many different reactions to the same book! If you’re a writer, remember that you’re not writing to please the largest possible audience – that produces insipid writing. Instead, you’re writing for the reader who is going to feel buoyed by (immersed in, swimming in) the way you tell your story.

 

 

This Is Your Brain on Folk Music

Inside_Llewyn_Davis_Poster_72dpi_RGBInside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the talented Coen Brothers, is finally out on DVD – I’ve been dying to see it, but it came and went quickly to theaters in Seattle, and I missed it. As a writer, I’m always interested in seeing what other creative people’s take is on creativity and the creative life in general. The wait was long, but it was worth it.

It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it films (as is most of the Coen Brothers’ work) with quite a few people disappointed by it.  I loved it. I thought about it long into the night, and the next day found myself singing songs from the folk music scene of the early 60′s. Those were the years I began to get interested in poetry, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg and Kenneth Patchen. I subscribed as a teenager to the Village Voice (worlds away from my own non-Village home in San Jose, California – but hey, we had our own little coffee house called Freight and Salvage.) I took guitar lessons from Marty Ziegler, I listened to Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, the Clancy Brothers. In the movie, when a young clean-cut duo gets up to sing “The Last Thing on My Mind,”  I could sing every single word of it. What is it about memory – our brains on music – that allows us to call up song lyrics (and the touch, taste, smell, sound, and sights of the moments that surround them) so easily when we can’t even remember where we put our keys or our reading glasses? Here’s a wonderful rendition of it with Liam Clancy and Tom Paxton.

And many years later, those evenings spent singing folk songs with other faculty members of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, up in the faculty lounge late at night during our residencies, with Leda Schubert on guitar and my fellow Books-Around-the-Table friend Laura Kvasnosky sometimes there on ukulele – those moments were golden.

But my reaction to Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t all about nostalgia.

The film deserves attention from anyone involved in the arts because it examines creativity, talent, personality, ethics, integrity, commercialism, perseverance – and how all those elements get harnessed or go wandering off in an artist’s life. [If you have trouble with spoilers, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. Me, I never mind knowing in advance what's coming - it helps me watch the scenes more carefully....]

There’s a scene in the movie where Llewyn has a chance, finally, to audition for Al Grossman (played beautifully by F. Murray Abraham, who did such a fantastic job in another movie which examines artistic talent, Amadeus.) Grossman was the manager in the 60′s of the famous music venue Gate of Horn in Chicago, and he represented most of the big folksingers of the decade – Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Richie Havens, and – later – Janis Joplin.

The audition is Llewyn’s big chance, yet he chooses an obscure traditional ballad, a difficult song to perform, and Grossman responds by saying he doesn’t see much money in it. He gives Llewyn mixed advice, some good (look for a partner who can add depth with  harmonies) and some offensive (cut the beard into a goatee, clean up) and Llewyn simply walks away.

Llewyn's Audition with Al Grossman

Llewyn’s Audition with Al Grossman

It’s almost like the musician gives the manager a test by singing this ballad in its pure, traditional form – and Grossman fails the test. At least that’s how I saw it play out. Historically, of course, it was Dave Van Ronk (the real-life folksinger Llewyn is based on) who failed Grossman’s test and then drifted back into the small Gaslight Cafe scene of Greenwich Village rather than use the Gate of Horn and Grossman’s mentorship as a springboard for national success.

Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t garner the usual prizes or attention that Coen Brothers’ films usually do (think O Brother, Where Art Thou – which the wonderful T-Bone Burnett, a big part of Inside Llewyn Davis, also helped conceive.)  I’ve been trying to sort out why, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the hero of the tale is so complicated – it’s hard to understand him. Does he self-destruct over and over again, or is it just a hard, mean world for a struggling artist? He’s not always nice – in fact, he’s often unappealing: sarcastic, smug, dismissive, judgmental, irresponsible. He takes advantage of people, rotates through their apartments eating their food, using their couches to crash, sees himself as a person who does not compromise, is not interested in the real lives of other people. He’s all about himself and his music – and you never quite know if he lost his musical partner to suicide because of troubles the partner had or because of how little joy or support Llewyn was capable of. Nevertheless, one of the crew says (in the Special Features section – watch that, it’s fascinating, especially T-Bone Burnett talking about jamming for the movie) that she thinks everyone in the movie is a phony except Llewyn. I didn’t feel that way at all – I guess it’s all about perspective. But in a certain way, as a writer, I empathized with Llewyn’s attempts to stay true to his talent. Besides, he’s just so sad. Even a person who does it to himself deserves some sympathy, no?

So please, rent the movie, watch it and come to your own conclusions. Talented artists are not always easy people to get along with, and Llewyn is not a nice-guy hero. The same was true about Mozart in Amadeus, of course – Salieri, his less talented colleague, watches as the miserably adolescent Mozart giggles his way to fame and fortune. Llewyn has his own failings – and he’s no Mozart-level genius. So…is the film saying that a lack of talent does him in, or a too-highly-honed sense of integrity, or just plain bad luck being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or his own disaffections or….? What are the Coen Brothers telling us about artistic endeavors? I’m not sure yet. If you’ve seen the film, help me figure it out – add a comment below. Why do some artists make it and others don’t? What, as an artist, do you owe to your own talent? Is the world a hospitable or hostile place for artists? And is Llewyn actually a talented artist or an Almost-but-not-quite? Or is he despicable, as many viewers claim?  What does the world owe him? What does he owe the world? As writers, we can think about that a bit.

llewynAnd what do you think the cat is all about?

Gosh, I love a movie – or a book or a song or a painting or any work of art – that leaves you thinking.

While we think about the answers to those questions, let’s go put on a few of our old records (still have a phonograph?) and be amazed by our musical memory. How many you can sing along to from Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin’,” Richie Haven’s “Mixed Bag,” Ian and Sylvia, Peter Paul and Mary, the Clancy Brothers, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez? Hey, how about Dave Van Ronk’s incomparable “Dink’s Song,” which you’ll recognize as Llewyn’s signature piece. Lovely song.

Love: That Old MacGuffin

Book - HeartHappy Valentine’s Day, Everyone!

Love, love, love…ain’t it grand? Especially for writers, since nearly every work of literature has at its most fundamental level something to do with love – the finding of it, the loss of it, the overwhelming and transformative pressure it exerts, the thinning out of it or the strengthening of it by degrees, the confusions of it, the comforts of it – whether it’s love of self, of a friend, a lover, a family member, a community. Sometimes it’s love of a place, which can be just as strong as love of a person. Often falling into it is the inciting incident, though just as often falling out is the denouement. Sci-Fi, mystery, thriller, literary fiction – it doesn’t matter what genre – love is almost always there, whether at the surface or flowing along at the river-bed level of the narrative line.

Since poetry’s narrative line is shorter, or sometimes not even there, it addresses momentary fascinations wrapped up in interesting and seductive language – that’s a different thing altogether. Not that poetry is fundamentally flirtatious. There are many deep, determined, and long-lasting love poems. But they are usually brief.

Sonnet

I think that’s because a poem wants to come out out singing. Happy lovers have their sweet duets, disappointed lovers  have their Blues. But are momentary fascinations at the heart – no pun  intended – of fiction? No. Fiction by its very nature engages us in something more prolonged.

Last Sunday the New York Times published (in its Book Review column “Round-Up”) a collection of thoughts from well-known writers about what literature has taught them about love.  Here’s how the column was presented:

Recent studies suggest that reading literature may make us smarter and more empathic, even more civic-minded. But what can literature tell us about love? Writers in a variety of genres share the books that taught them about love — and a few that led them memorably astray.

The list of writers who responded includes Hilary Mantel, Gary Shteyngart, Natasha Trethaway, Ann Patchett, Com Toibin, Jeanette Winterson and Khaled Hosseini, among others.  David Levithan tells us about reading Weetzie Bat. Colm Toibin insists he hasn’t learned anything about love from literature (though how intriguing to say, “Teaching us is one of literature’s afterthoughts; it is fiction’s bored sigh.”)  My favorite answer comes from the novelist Charles Baxter.

Charles Baxter, who knows a thing or two about a thing or two....

Charles Baxter, who knows a thing or two about a thing or two….

No wonder I love his stories so much, when he’s the kind of person who can say this:

“What literature teaches us about love is so multifarious as to be self-canceling. Shakespeare, for example, tells us that love is comical (“As You Like It”), passionate (“Romeo and Juliet”), disgusting (“Troilus and Cressida”), ennobling (“Antony and Cleopatra”), and is probably the most significant part of a young person’s sentimental education (the sonnets) even when it degrades the one who loves, as it usually does. Ovid assumes that everyone wants to love and to be loved (“Ars Amatoria”) and then to get free of the whole mess (“Remedia Amoris”). In Wagner’s version of the Nibelungenlied, Alberich the dwarf gains power by renouncing love. You get out of the game, you achieve mastery of an undesirable variety. But, as the musical comedian Anna Russell once observed, Alberich wasn’t going to get any love anyway, so he might as well renounce it.

Love is therefore a MacGuffin: It has no meaning of its own but gives a particular meaning to every situation. Anything you say about it is probably true, and the opposite will also be true. It’s beautiful and destructive in “The Iliad,” fecund and creative in the “Vigil of Venus,” plain stupid and scary (“Madame Bovary”). Love serves as the locus for sentimentality and domestic piety. In its name, terrible things are said.

One thing’s for sure: As a force, it changes people into fools. Or royalty. Or: It doesn’t change people. Take your pick.”

I agree with Baxter (or do I ♥ him?): Nothing about the nature of love in stories is nailed down or inert. And nothing says that as a writer you have to be consistent in your attitude toward it. Shakespeare (whoever Shakespeare was) didn’t feel the need for consistency. One play leaves you feeling like love is all the matters…

"My love is deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have...." (Romeo and Juliet)

“My love is deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have….” (Romeo and Juliet)

…and the next teaches you that love is for fools.

a-midsummer-nights-dream-william-shakespeare4“Methought I was enamored of an ass.” (Midsummer Night’s Dream)

As writers, we need to acknowledge love’s presence  in our stories, don’t we?  We won’t all write “love stories,” of course.  But we’ll always need to understand that stories – characters and the choices they make (doesn’t that define the word “narrative”?) – turn on love or the lack of it.

Try asking yourself this question: What will your readers learn from you? Before you can answer that, you need to sort out the answer to the initial question: What has literature taught you about love?  Answers (in the comments) much appreciated! And while you’re thinking about it, you can read the NY Times column here, and you can even let the Beatles (50th Anniversary? Amazing) serenade you for a bit. If you want to see what the KidsLit people are posting for Poetry Friday, you’ll find the round-up at Linda Baie’s blog, TeacherDance.

All you need is love,
all you need is love,
all you need is love, love,
l♥ve is ♥ll y♥u need.

flower love and peace

On Cabbages, Friendship and Facebook

Image

A game of poem-tag started the other day over at Facebook, with friends tagging each other and assigning poets to each other. The only rule? You had to post a poem by your assigned poet. The goal? To blanket Facebook with poetry…and why not? Poetry makes a pretty nice blanket on a brrrrr-ish winter day.

So far, I’ve had two people tag me, one asking for a poem by poet Ruth Stone, the other asking for one by Kay Ryan – lucky me, because I love both those poets. Below I’ve posted the poem I chose by Ruth Stone (“A Cabbage.”) In turn, I’ve asked some Facebook friends to post poems by Linda Bierds, Linda Gregg, Catherine Wing, Steven Kuiisisto and Raymond Carver (yes, he wrote poetry before he ever wrote fiction.)

Though I’m not a huge fan of Facebook (nervous about the way it’s used to track certain things about its users – I’m not attentive to it, not even quite comfortable with it) I do use it to link to my  posts here at Books Around the Table and to my personal blog, The Drift Record. It’s easy to trash Facebook  and say that the “friendships” are artificial, and I suppose they can be. But they can be more, too.

What I like about Facebook is the sense of community it can generate quickly, as is the case with the sudden game of poetry tag or the occasional call for political action. Sure, I have my own friends in my life on a daily basis – my friendship with them has the patina that comes with rubbing elbows over and over. But there are “friends” out there that I’ve never met, friends who share my enthusiasm for a good poem or who ask interesting questions about writing, art, life, whatever.  I don’t care if their friendship comes to me online – that’s fine. Writing can be isolating – and I’m comfortable with my friends arriving via different modes of delivery. I like the connective tissue that gets formed no matter how we meet.

Some of these Internet-only friends are beginning to feel very real – one in Italy I hope to visit some day, another one whose three blogs consistently appeal to me – she’s smart as heck and very energetic, and she loves poetry. I have the feeling we would be good friends if she lived close by – once upon a time that was the only way to become close.

I’ve never met some of the writers who participate in Poetry Friday (hosted by Keri at Keri Recommends this week) but I sometimes find myself thinking “I wish I knew this person,” and I suspect that between the two of us we’ll make that meeting happen. We’ll shake hands at a Writers Conference one day and feel immediately like old friends.

A Facebook friendship is not unlike the relationship that developed between avid reader Helene Hanff and used bookseller Frank Doel (described in Hanff’s book 84 Charing Cross Road – made into a sweet film with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.) An ocean separated them, but they were close friends thanks to the letters they exchanged. I do envy them those letters, mostly for the handwriting – I miss handwritten letters. But now it’s keyboards, and the ocean is virtual – and that’s okay with me. Sometimes the aggressiveness of 21st-Century technologies drives me absolutely crazy – everything coming at me too fast, too blurred.  But certain things about it are useful. I spent time reading Ruth Stone and Kay Ryan on Wednesday because of friends on Facebook. I can live with that.

Here’s the poem by Ruth Stone, mentioned above. Hope you like it. It speaks to me in cabbage language.

A Cabbage

You have rented an apartment.
You come to this enclosure with physical relief,
your heavy body climbing the stairs in the dark,
the hall bulb burned out, the landlord
of Greek extraction and possibly a fatalist.
In the apartment leaning against one wall,
your daughter’s painting of a large frilled cabbage
against a dark sky with pinpoints of stars.
The eager vegetable, opening itself
as if to eat the air, or speak in cabbage
language of the meanings within meanings;
while the points of stars hide their massive
violence in the dark upper half of the painting.
You can live with this.

– Ruth Stone

‘Tis the Season of Top Ten Lists

A Deep, Deep Hole

A Deep, Deep Hole

Help! I have fallen into a deep, dark hole and I can’t get out! It’s called “The Top Ten Somethings of 2013″ hole, and for obsessive list-makers like me, it happens predictably each December.  The New York Times’ Ten Best Illustrated Books of 2013 and their Ten Best Books 0f 2013, Time Magazine’s Top Ten U.S. News Stories, Atlantic Magazine’s Top Ten Movies, The Nation Magazine’s Progressive Honor Roll 2013 (16 on the roll, 2 of them based in Seattle,and hooray for that!) The “Best” lists keep going – gadgets, inventions, dramas on Broadway, best goofs by anchormen…it’s endless. The dis-ease I feel about loving lists evaporates when I read poets like Paul Violi, who wrote many list poems, or when I come across whole books that are written about the writing of list-poems.

My mother has always been a great maker of lists, and I suspect I got the gene from her. Mom’s lists, though, are usually of the productive variety (starting with the words “To-Do”) and mine are more commonly headed “My Favorite….”

My lists are seldom useful; they’re not made to help me remember all the errands that have stacked up. They’re not meant to accomplish anything more than situate me in the current moment by naming several things that are either 1) favorites or 2) what I call “wish-listing.”

Wish-listing goes like this: “Name ten things you will do/buy immediately if you win the $648,000,000 Mega Millions lottery.

MegaMillion tickets...

MegaMillion tickets…

I make lists like this because they’re fun, no other reason. There are a few rules: First, it’s a given that I would donate a generous chunk to organizations like Doctors Without Borders, so I don’t have to put charities on the list. Ditto with even bigger chunks to my kids – that’s assumed. And the list can’t have anything that smacks of delayed gratification – like opening a savings account. So the list is pure fantasy. A restored centuries-old farmhouse in Italy keeps heading the list. A cabin on no-bank waterfront in the San Juan Islands. A first edition of Robert Frost’s first book – signed by Mr. Frost, of course. I fall asleep making lists like that, but I don’t keep a record of them. No need. I didn’t win that lottery.

I didn't win, so I won't be buying this.

I didn’t win, so I won’t be buying this.

The Top-Ten type of list is something I actually write down. It’s for fun, too, but it’s also an act of reflection and a measurement of what my priorities and tastes are at any particular moment in my life. My sister and I used to write (and revise, every so often) lists of The Top Ten Qualities in a Mate – this is both before and after we were married. The list accommodated our mood swings, jumping between truly ideal qualities (kind, generous, affectionate) to practical qualities (likes to weed, is good with fix-it jobs, screens my phone calls.)

Weeding...

Loves to weed…

Loves home improvement projects...

Loves home improvement projects…

Screens calls.....

Screens calls…..

The challenge going around on Facebook the past couple of weeks is a perfect example of the Top Ten list: Name ten books that have “stayed with you” over the years. To me, that means books that haunt me, books that changed me, books I keep handing to people and begging them to read, books that made a difference to me when I read them. Here is the list I posted; I immediately longed to revise and/or lengthen it. In chronological order, according to how old I was when I read them:

1. The Secret Garden (Burnett)
2. A Child’s Christmas in Wales (Thomas)
3. To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
4. Leaves of Grass (Whitman)
5. Cat’s Cradle (Vonnegut)
6. Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
7. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
8. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce)
9. Pale Fire (Nabokov)
10. On the Natural History of Destruction (Sebald)

That will do –though — OMG — where is One Hundred Years of Solitude?? Poetry by Seamus Heaney? Jane Austen?? How about my top ten, with several hundred on the Honor Roll?

Still, making the list helped me reflect on what kind of writer I hope to be. There’s a children’s book that tells a fine, layered story and is still character-driven. Also, it’s optimistic – I need to try harder with that. All ten of the books have language that is carefully crafted. There’s poetry that cares about form, made for reading quietly by the fire. There’s poetry that is full-throated, made to be read aloud, to be almost sung.  There are several that care about social justice and that remind me writers can be political and still tell a good story. There’s fiction that’s funny, and there’s fiction that combines the political with the humorous. There’s non-fiction that looks at the human heart and sees the dark along with the bright.

Making the list confirms what I believe now about storytelling – that it needs structure, form, heart, humor, song – and a conscience.  Tomorrow I might put different books on the list, and I’d reflect again on how those choices speak to me as a writer.

It’s not a bad thing to do when the year is ending. Try it – give yourself ten minutes. Reflect. Make a list like this of books that remind you what kind of writer you want to be. January 1st, 2014 is coming – when it does, it will be time to work hard  at being that writer.

Coming Soon: The Mock Caldecotts

My Current Favorite: LOCOMOTIVE by Brian Floca. Big and beautiful and true! This is a book to spend hours pouring over....

My Current Favorite: LOCOMOTIVE by Brian Floca. This is a book to spend hours pouring over….

As the year draws to a close, Mock Caldecott groups start compiling lists of the books they’ll discuss through early January. It takes time to get copies of the books, read through them, read through them again, compare them to other books being mentioned for the prestigious medal, deliberate, consider.  So November – right now -  is when the real conversations start and the winnowing down to a manageable list begins.

Some of these Mock Caldecott groups involve librarians in districts around the country. Some are formed by groups on websites such as GoodReads. Many teachers discuss and vote for favorites with their students.  Anyone can have a Mock Caldecott discussion – gathering together as part of virtual or real communities with a shared interest in picture books.  Author Leda Schubert tells you how, step-by-step, over at Write at Your Own Risk this week.

The goal of the discussion is usually 1) to guess which book might win or 2) to toot the horn for a chosen – possibly overlooked – favorite. I sat in on a 2013 Mock Caldecott discussion at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and it was definitely an eye-opener. Some books that I thought were not really “distinguished” enough had great champions in the group; some books I loved left other people cold.  A few – just a few – were loved by almost everyone.  For example, we were thrilled by Unspoken by Henry Cole, and voted it our favorite.

Unspoken by Henry Cole, a favorite which went unmentioned by the committee in 2013.

Unspoken by Henry Cole, a favorite which went unmentioned by the committee in 2013.

But Unspoken did not even get an Honor Medal; Creepy Carrots did, which didn’t even make our list. Mock Caldecott winners are often off the mark, because the dynamic of every group of readers can be so different. The eventual winner of the medal that year, This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, was considered “cute” by our group, but not really “distinguished,” which is the criteria the American Library Association says should be used to choose the winner. The real Caldecott committee sometimes tries extra hard to find something both kid-friendly and distinguished – not an easy task. Sometimes they do an excellent job of honoring brilliant illustrations (for which the medal is awarded) without ignoring the need for a story well-told, and the Mock Caldecott groups try to do the same.

I can’t imagine what the pressure must be like if, when the final decision about the medal nears, opinion is divided (though the person who led our discussion at VCFA – Leda Schubert again – had been on the Caldecott committee before and told us it was all quite civilized – no one came to blows.) The book that wins the medal will be elevated to Oprah-level attention immediately, will be sought out by every K-3 teacher in America, not to mention parents and grandparents (and even, sometimes, kids!)  and will most likely never go out of print. The committee members will be hailed as geniuses by some and dismissed as nincompoops by others, all within 24-hours of the announcements.

I thought those of you reading BOOKS AROUND THE TABLE might like some quick links to websites/blogs that report their lists and the results of their discussions (usually just before the January ALA conference when actual winners are announced.) You’ll find links if you scroll down past this collection of cover images for books mentioned again and again in the Mock Caldecott lists. If you have favorites that are getting overlooked, use the Comments field to share the titles with us so we can all check them out!

CALDECOTT FRONTRUNNERS:

Building Our House (written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean)

Building Our House (written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean)

The Mighty Lalouche (written by Michael Olshan, illustrations by Sophie Blackall)

The Mighty Lalouche (written by Michael Olshan, illustrations by Sophie Blackall)

Journey (wordless, illustrated by Aaron Becker)

Journey (wordless, illustrated by Aaron Becker)

Matchbox Diary (written by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline)

Matchbox Diary (written by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline)

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (written and illustrated by Peter Brown)

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (written and illustrated by Peter Brown)

Inside Outside (wordless, illustrated by Lizi Boyd)

Inside Outside (wordless, illustrated by Lizi Boyd)

The Dark (written by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen)

The Dark (written by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen)

Bluebird (written and illustrated by Bob Staake)

Bluebird (written and illustrated by Bob Staake)

Tortoise and Hare (written and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney)

Tortoise and Hare (written and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney)

(And don’t forget the book which opens this post – Locomotive by Brian Floca. It’s big and beautiful and non-fiction, which I couldn’t get enough of as a kid.)

There are many other books that make multiple lists – I’ve singled out just ten of those mentioned consistently.  Here are links to several Mock Caldecott lists (not all lists have been finalized…some are just being compiled, some come in seasonal sections – Spring, Summer, Fall….)

1. Fuse #8 Production list (Scroll past the Mock Newbery to reach the Mock Caldecott list. This is compiled by the savvy and influential librarian, Betsy Bird, of the New York City Library.)

2. Watch. Connect. Read. (The author of this blog is a K-5 librarian – I wish we could put someone like him into every elementary school in America.)

3. Read, Write, Reflect. (A fine bunch of books under discussion, and ditto the comment I made above. The leader of this discussion with students is a 5th grade teacher named Katherine Sokolowski.)

4. Allen County Library System list (Indiana librarians – they have a particularly lively discussion and add many books throughout the year.) Click here for their blog site (One Book, Two Books, Old Books, New Books) and then enter “Mock Caldecott 2014″ in the search box.

5. Calling Caldecott (compiled by The Horn Book)

6. Ashland University (Ohio) list, through August.

7. GoodReads.com group (they list “Currently Reading” – about four books discussed at any given time) as well as several past months’ reading suggestions – scroll down at the site to see those.

You’ll find plenty of other interesting discussions going on – just enter “Mock Caldecott 2014″ as your search terms.

You can keep an eye on these through December and early January to see what books get added. And you can collect a stack of your favorites (or even some non-favorites – to keep the discussion lively!) from the library, invite friends over, and talk about which ones you would give the award to. Here is the ALA description of what the winner should be: “The Medal shall be awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year. There are no limitations as to the character of the picture book except that the illustrations be original work. Honor books may be named. These shall be books that are also truly distinguished.”

Use that as the guideline for your discussion.

I'd like to thank every committee member who agreed to give the book the Caldecott medal. Nicely done.

I’d like to thank the committee that agreed to give this book the Caldecott medal in 1942.  Nicely done.

On Oaxaca Time

La Catrina

La Catrina

Estoy escribiendo hoy desde Oaxaca….no, no, no, I mean I’m writing this from Oaxaca today. I can hear the grinding of the gears as my brain switches between Spanish and English. I can hear a little more grinding in the switch from Go-go-go-go-go to relax-relax-relax-relax. and even more grinding between the London bobby style of giving directions (“Two blocks down, Miss, on your right, blue door, black doorknocker, can’t be missed….”) and the Policia Municipal (“Si, si, Senora, the museum used to be here, it moved, maybe a block down, maybe four or five, but not too far, over that way, just down that direction, maybe on the other side of the park….” and it’s always nice to walk through the park even if you don’t find the museum.

Eventually – a few days into things – the gear-grinding stops and all is smooth. You are not quite you, but you like the you you have become. The logical left brain gets quieter, the right brain sings.  Colors intensify.

Hand-made Paper, Taller de Papel in San Agustin Etla

Hand-made Paper, Taller de Papel in San Agustin Etla

Tastes intensify….

Breakfast

Breakfast: Molote con Chorizo y Papa

…and the sense of smell intensifies. You can smell ripening guayavas somewhere. There, on the other side of the wall, a guayava tree.

There, on the other side of the wall....

There, on the other side of the wall….

A green parrot hangs in a cage from a tree inside a cloister built in the 16th century. He looks at you sideways, his bright red eyes rimmed all the way around with yellow. “Hasta luego!” he says when you walk away.

 Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching….every sense intensified…this is what writers and artists need from time to time.  Walking, listening, seeing, slowing down.

It’s an important time in Oaxaca – the three-day spread that surrounds the Day of the Dead, and I’m headed over to the cemetery as soon as the sun goes down.  There are tubas and trumpets and drums; there are people who have become skeletons; there is dancing in the streets.  There are marigold-covered altars to the dead inside many courtyards.  There are images everywhere of La Catrina, the young lady skeleton with wide hat and parasol. Everywhere, Los Muertos  - the Dead.  And I am feeling quite alive.

Curiosity Kills the Cat, but Not the Writer….

Woodpecker - Paper Sculpture by Diana Beltran Herrera

Woodpecker – Paper Sculpture by Diana Beltran Herrera

I love getting newsletters from Smithsonian magazine emailed to me once a week – they send links to their articles and I usually find a thing or two (or three or four or more) to think about and explore further.  I subscribe to the print magazine, too;  it’s the one I reach for first when the mail brings me lots of heady reading. I have a thick folder in my file cabinet that’s just for articles I’ve torn out from their pages. This week, it was the beautiful birds of paper sculptor Diana Beltran Herrera (see link below.) I sent the link on to my sister, who also likes such things and whose intellectual curiosity and capacity for wonder inspire me. It seems to me that the bottom line for all artists is curiosity, no?  If you want to be a better writer, try being more curious about the world and the way it works.

Here, then, are links to some recent Smithsonian articles (and there are links within those articles – you can get lost inside it all.)  I hope they set you wandering and wondering…and writing!  Just click on the description:

1. Paper robins, woodpeckers, cardinals, kingfishers…

Robin in flight...

Robin in flight…

2. An insect with “mechanical” gears…

3.  …and a mechanical insect! (this one is from the archives)

Man-made beetle...

Man-made beetle…

4. A “sonic bloom” at the Seattle Center

Sonic-Bloom-Dan-Corson

5. Making music with the Brooklyn Bridge …

6. Shooting frozen flowers? (Who would even think of it? Eerie and beautiful…)

Frozen Flower, Shot

Frozen Flower, Shot

7. Repairing memories and changing memories…

"Each time a memory is recalled, the brain rebuilds it."

“Each time a memory is recalled, the brain rebuilds it.”

8. There’s an exhibition of Brian Skerry’s photography up at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. right now. Here’s a slideshow of his work. 

This is how you photograph a whale...

This is how you photograph a whale…

(By the way, it doesn’t take much to support our wonderful national museum – just $19 and you automatically get a subscription to the magazine.  Click here to visit their website and become a member.)

****

The word is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Robert Louis Stevenson