Monthly Archives: December 2014

Women and Reading

As a writer and lover of books, I collect images of books in art. I have perhaps 500 images and without a doubt the dominant image is of a woman reading–alone. There are whole books about it.

The New Yorker ran an  interesting article about the history of women reading a few years ago.  It’s a history of taboos and strictures, but ever growing literacy for women.

But I find myself drawn to these images aside from their political or social implications. The women in the art come from all walks of life. They are at different ages and stages:

Illustration by Caitlin Shearer.

Art by Caitlin Shearer








Artist Thomas Hart Benton

Art by Thomas Hart Benton







       They are from different cultures:

Illustration by Jillian Ditner

Illustration by Jillian Ditner


Illustration by LaShun Beal

Art by LaShun Beal











They come from different stations in life:

Illustrator C. Cole Phillips

Art by C. Cole Phillips

Oil painting by Hillary Coddington Lewis

Art by Hillary Coddington Lewis




From a different knowing about life:

Art by Georgy Kurasov

Art by Georgy Kurasov

Art by Gwen John

Art by Gwen John

They are strong:

Art by Kenton Nelson

Art by Kenton Nelson




And they are trapped:

Art by AJ Frena

Art by AJ Frena



But they all share their engrossment, their engagement, their interiority. What are they reading? Where has the story taken them? What life experiences and what questions do they bring to the book? Will they find the answers?

The result is as unknowable and mysterious as the content of their books.

Art by Leonid Balaklav

Art by Leonid Balaklav



On the Writing of Essays (Don’t Groan)


Essays by Ursula Le Guin…

This last week I’ve been reviewing final versions of several lectures I delivered to students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts during the seven years I taught there. Seven years means fourteen semesters, with a few semesters “off duty” when I was excused from delivering a full-blown lecture.

One semester I helped organize a Good vs. Evil Day – Tim Wynne-Jones and I asked students to think about villains and heroes, and about writing characters who were either flawed good guys or appealing bad guys – the theory being that no person is either completely good or completely bad. Villains are more interesting if they see themselves as heroes (in the style of Inspector Jauvert of Les Miserables, who believes that his love of law and order means he is always “keeping watch in the night” against chaos and corruption) and heroes are definitely more interesting if they’re three-dimensional, if they’re good but at the same time flawed or complicated (“The self is always under construction…” says Peter Turchi, and “…the multiplicity of selves is what allows change.” ) Or, as Walt Whitman put it, “I contain multitudes.” Students had fun with that presentation, but it seemed a given – “Deepen your characters” is not exactly new advice – and I didn’t ever consider repeating it.

Katherine Paterson

Essays by Katherine Paterson…

Another semester I worked to put together a workshop (later repeated with students of the regular MFA writing program) about the need for play in works of poetry and fiction, and how artificial “constraints” allow for a game-playing mind-set. We looked at the rules of poetic forms – a sonnet, a villanelle, a sestina, a double abecedarian. Trying to stay “inside the lines” counter-intuitively frees us up, that’s what I was trying to say. We end up producing work that surprises us, and everyone knows that “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” So we played and wrote  responses to “challenges” with devilishly hard constraints (Ever try a “syntax map”? If not, count yourself lucky. Ever translate work without knowing the original language at all?) I had high hopes for that presentation – but it didn’t come together the way I expected it to. If the students had all been writing poetry, it might have worked. But it was hard to convince fiction writers that constraints would improve their fiction. Win some, lose some.

celebrating children's books

Essays by Paula Fox, Jill Paton Walsh, Virginia Hamilton, Susan Cooper, E. L. Konigsburg, Arnold Lobel, Myra Cohn Livingston, David Macaulay….

Most semesters I delivered a straight-forward lecture from a podium. I started my first semester at VCFA with a lecture about poetry, since that was my “specialty.” Later I moved on to a lecture about the need to be a “flaneur” and wander the neighborhood/city/world with every observational skill on the alert, eavesdropping, following people (a la Maira Kalman), taking photos. That lecture was well-received, but I realized I couldn’t ever quite predict what the students were hungry to hear or learn about. My solution to that was to choose my topics based only on whatever interested me at the time. I had just read Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, so the art of the flaneur was what my students got.

One of my most successful lectures – that is, the one students responded to with the most enthusiasm – was about maps in works of fiction. It seemed to me that quite a lot of student work I had been reading had forgotten that stories and the characters who inhabit them take place in real space, and if you don’t give your characters a landscape and a place to stand in that landscape, then they are literally not “grounded.” Students brought maps of the locales in which their stories were unfolding. What a treat! My favorite was a completely black map with “aromas” attached (kind of scratch-and-sniff-ish) because the student’s story involved anthropomorphized insects with great charm and personality and a well-developed sense of smell.  The result of that lecture was published in The Horn Book, though the magazine couldn’t publish the maps I showed on a large screen to students – maps from Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Ramona Quimby’s neighborhood, the 100-acre wood of Winnie-the-Pooh, Narnia. and many others.

I delivered one lecture that I thought would go over like a lead balloon, about the “artful sentence,” because I’d been reading Virginia Tufte’s wonderful book of the same name.


I pulled examples from the work of M.T. Anderson (The Astonishing Life of Octavion Nothing, Traitor to the Nation), Margo Lanagan (Tender Morsels), and Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street.) I beat my usual drum about how sentences actually have rhythm the way music does; somehow, the students just lit up and loved it. What a surprise that was. If students tripped consistently over a single stumbling block, it was the sound quality of their sentences. I assumed, going in to that lecture, that they weren’t interested. But apparently what I said sparked a little flame.  For beginning writers, so much effort goes into moving forward with plot that the quality of the language gets shoved aside. So I talked about flow and fluidity, and about the effect of hard stresses, and accented syllables that echoed the action itself.

My favorite lecture, though – the one I had the most fun working on and the one that reflected a years-long obsession of my own – was titled “Who Am I? What the Lowly Riddle Reveals.” Students read the packet description and expected “What’s black and white and read all over?” puzzles, and instead I wanted to help them consider metaphorical thinking – the art of understanding sub-surface connections between one thing (an object?)  and another (a state of mind or emotion?) I talked about metaphors being the equivalent of riddles, and about how to keep metaphor-making fresh so that our writing will be exciting. That lecture was later published in Numero Cinq magazine.

My last lecture before retiring was about flash fiction. I was interested, and it was a lot of fun, since it was a plea once again to play with form. But I relied heavily on excerpts from other people’s work, and though the fun showed up, my own imaginative thinking was tamped down.

Just today I sent two of those lectures in, polished up into essay form (drop the jokes, forget the slideshow) for a possible presentation to editors of a book anthologizing craft lectures from the faculty of VCFA. My creative interest really has been in essays lately rather than in stories. I can feel a soft wind pushing my boat that direction.

And here at Books Around the Table I want to encourage readers who feel that same wind to take a look at putting on the hat of an essayist. It’s through essay writing that I learn more and more about writing – by having to articulate a specific aspect of craft, I make myself more aware of what’s at work in not only other people’s writing, but in my own.

a muse and a maze

Next time you read a book of essays about writing (not the how-to kind but the why-to) see how the author is doing what he or she does. What makes it more interesting than a textbook? What might you say about the same topic? I just finished a glorious craft book – absolutely delightful – called A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic by Peter Turchi (author of Maps of the Imagination. ) It’s a perfect model. Read it. Dissect Turchi’s technique. Think about the obsession that drove him to write a whole book about how writing is similar to (but not the same as) the work of a magician like Houdini or a puzzle-maker like Will Shortz. Then think about your own obsessions. What do you want to figure out?

It’s not the essay writing that you had to do in college which, at the time, might have resembled a trip to the dentist – you  groaned and got it done, but it didn’t fill you with pleasure.  Instead, see the art of essay-writing as an opportunity for growth as a creative writer. The research, the re-reading of favorite books (reading to understand how a certain effect is achieved), the organizing of thoughts, the actual writing, all of it is pleasurable now. Something about good old prose is similar to a Shaker chair, if you know what I mean – unfussy, direct, clean, spare, useful, graceful. It’s been good for me. It might be good for you, too.


Ever come across a passage in a novel that you can’t wait to share with one friend or another? When I first read the following passage from Mink River by Brian Doyle, I immediately thought of Julie Larios. I was sure she would like it. She lives the flanneur life and has a poet’s attention to detail. I reached for the phone.

Then I remembered my turn at this blog was fast approaching. I put down the phone and started typing. I expect not just Julie, but most of our BooksAroundTheTable readers will eat it up. It’s the entire chapter 30 of Mink River, all in one paragraph and worth reading aloud:


These things matter to me, Daniel, says the man with six days to live. They are sitting on the porch in the last light. These things matter to me, son. The way hawks huddle their shoulders angrily against hissing snow. Wrens whirring in the bare bones of bushes in winter. The way swallows and swifts veer and whirl and swim and slice and carve and curve and swerve. The way that frozen dew outlines every blade of grass. Salmonberries thimbleberries cloudberries snowberries elderberries gooseberries. My children learning to read. My wife’s voice velvet in my ear at night in the dark under the covers. Her hair in my nose as we slept curled like spoons. The sinuous pace of rivers and minks and cats. Rubber bands. Fresh bread with too much butter. My children’s hands when they cup my face in their hands. Toys. Exuberance. Mowing the lawn. Tiny wrenches and screwdrivers. Tears of sorrow, which are the salt sea of the heart. Sleep in every form from doze to bone-weary. Pay stubs. Trains. The shivering ache of a saxophone and the yearning of a soprano. Folding laundry hot from the dryer. A spotless kitchen floor. The sound of bagpipes. The way horses smell in spring. Red wines. Furnaces. Stone walls. Sweat. Postcards on which the sender has written so much that he or she can barely squeeze in a signature. Opera on the radio. Bathrobes, backrubs. Potatoes. Mink oil on boots. The bands at wedding receptions. Box-elder bugs. The postman’s grin. Linen table napkins. Tent flaps. The green sifting powdery snow of cedar pollen on my porch every year. Raccoons. The way a heron labors through the sky with such vast elderly dignity. The cheerful ears of dogs. Smoked fish and the smokehouses where fish are smoked. The way barbers sweep up circles of hair after a haircut. Handkerchiefs. Poems read aloud by poets. Cigar-scissors. Book marginalia written with the lightest possible pencil as if the reader is whispering to the writer. People who keep dead languages alive. Fresh-mown lawns. First-baseman’s mitts. Dishracks. My wife’s breasts. Lumber. Newspapers folded under arms. Hats. The way my children smelled after their baths when they were little. Sneakers. The way my father’s face shone right after he shaved. Pants that fit. Soap half gone. Weeds forcing their way through sidewalks. Worms. The sound of ice shaken in drinks. Nutcrackers. Boxing matches. Diapers. Rain in every form from mist to sluice. The sound of my daughters typing their papers for school. My wife’s eyes, as blue and green and grey as the sea. The sea, as blue and green and grey as her eyes. Her eyes. Her.

• • • • • •

That’s it. A list of what matters to this man who has six days to live. I love it for its specificity – Book marginalia written with the lightest possible pencil as if the reader is whispering to the writer. – and for its cadences – Red wines. Furnaces, Stone walls, Sweat. I love it because it is both universal – The way a heron labors through the sky with such a vast elderly dignity. – and personal – My children’s hands when they cup my face in their hands. It spans the natural world and the manmade world, the pedestrian and extraordinary, quotidian and eternal. I love the accumulation of it. How all the images and items add up to yearning. And the voice. It is a look over life, sifting through seasons for what matters. It is necessarily nostalgic but not schmaltzy.

What a wondrous list!

Though I hope I have more than six days to live, I thought I should get started on a list of things that matter to me: My husband singing in the kitchen. The way garlic sprouts poke through leaf mulch. The smell of oak duff on a California hillside. Moonlight. Ukulele. Good pruners. Pears…

Hey Julie Larios – what would be on your list of what matters? Anyone else want to play?

Big and Little

Last week Bonny ended her post with photos of gigantic head sculptures. They made me think about things tall and small.Paschkis tall and small

In real life there is something delightful about objects that are wildly out of scale – think of Oldenburg or Slinkachu.





Recently I sewed a giant quilt. It was a ridiculous and entertaining project which I write about here.J. Paschkis on big quilt

It is easier to create a giant in a painting, through context or distortion. Here is a small gallery of illustrations that play with scale; I hope that you will find them curious and curiouser.

Alice, illustrated by Tenniel

Alice, illustrated by Tenniel

telescoping alice

Swamp Angel is the story of a heroically large girl, beautifully illustrated by Paul Zelinsky.from Swamp Angel, illustrated by Paul Zelinsky

Swamp Angel, illustrated by Paul Zelinsky

Swamp Angel, illustrated by Paul Zelinsky

I especially love the ankle bones and saggy pants of Zwerger’s giant. Everything in this illustration feels lonely, from the pale colors to the empty dollhouse.

The Very Selfish Giant, illustrated by Lizbeth Zwerger

The Very Selfish Giant, illustrated by Lizbeth Zwerger

Note the evil expression of the Snorrasper! Sendak said that his monsters were inspired by his relatives.

Maurice Sendak's Snorrasper

Maurice Sendak’s Snorrasper

This illustration of Gulliver is from 1890.1890 gulliver These pictures of tiny Thumbelina and Hans Thumbling in a golden world are also from the late 1800’s.thumbelinahans thumblingFranz Wacik’s giant is carrying the Brave Little Tailor, whose adventures included scale based humor – beginning when he killed seven in one blow.franz wacik

In Fat Cat by Margaret Read MacDonald the gluttonous cat eventually grew too large to fit on the page.Paschkis fat catIn Summer Birds by Margarita Engle I drew the luna moth out of scale to show the strength of the interest that Maria Merian had in insects.Paschkis Summer Birds p30-31And I painted this Tall Boy just because I like creatures with long legs. He had to bend to fit into the picture.Paschkis Tall Boy

I get bogged down in Ezra Pound’s Canto 81, but I love this line from it:
The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.

The lesson of scale is that everything is relative.

Mouse Club Rules by Louis Wain b. 1860

Mouse Club Rules by Louis Wain b. 1860

And the last word comes from Lewis Carroll:
“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.”