The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Every January, I reread The Graveyard Book. A rainy day will come, or I’ll be in bed with a cold, and this overwhelming urge to pull it off the shelf again overcomes me. Even the year it was published, I read it again in January. I don’t know why it has such a strong influence on me during this time of year, but I suspect it’s something to do with the sense of mystery that permeates the novel and these early dark days of winter.

I wrote a letter to Gaiman the second or third time I read it, and I searched my computer desperately for a copy because honestly, few things are funnier than seeing me geek out over an author. Unfortunately, although I remember saving a copy before I sent it out, it’s gone now. I can’t even recreate what I wrote, although I know I spent an hour or so working on it while sitting on the couch, watching the rain beat against the window. I also remember the feeling I had – the feeling I always have – after I put this book down. It’s like staring up at the world from the bottom of deep crevasse; up there, the light dances with its shadow and the storms passing make the ground greener, rather than just damp. It’s possible to hear voices, and doors slamming, dogs barking at the music playing too loudly, but deep down, in this narrow reach of earth, everything is muted. Soft-edged. There’s magic, and it’s the kind that’s a little bit dark.

It’s no coincidence, I’m certain, that this is the same feeling I get whenever I enter a cemetery. Each has a quality, an air that’s nearly tangible. No matter how small, walking through those gates, I can feel a change. It’s tinged with the knowledge that even if I felt the urge to shout, it would be tamped down by whatever energy it is I’m experiencing.

That Gaiman wrote a book that so perfectly captured this – well, I suppose it’s to be expected; he’s been one of my favorite authors for twenty years now, after all. His are books that I don’t push on everyone, but instead save for kindred reading spirits. It isn’t fair, really, that I do that, but his writing is…well, it’s a whisper. To me, it embodies the phrase, “walk gently but carry a big stick.” In Gaiman’s books, the wisest characters never forget that.

I have to say that I also love the brutal elegance of this little book. This is a novel I would give to children who don’t like to read (those who do have hopefully already discovered it). It’s what I would call a spiderweb book – delicate, and delightfully intricate, while also being ferociously strong and predatory and frightening. Without a doubt, those are my favorites for young audiences. I don’t think children need mild-mannered books or sanitized reading experiences. I believe they crave an element of danger and darkness because those are the things that are most difficult to face in reality. Reading is a safe space to engage in the consideration of challenging circumstances, and having been a very anxious child myself, I was constantly drawn to books that forced me to face my worst fears. There was something almost magical about it.

Some books seem to spring forth and beg to empower young readers. For me, this will always be one that does just that. It’s hard to think less of one’s self when a book demands respect, when it trusts the intellect of the reader, and when it’s written with so much love for the people lucky enough to turn its pages.

 

For more about Neil Gaiman, go here.

The Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I don’t remember where it was that I first saw this poem, but I keep finding it in different places around my house as I clean, and finally I decided it just wanted to be shared. I’ve scribbled it down in three different notebooks (that I’ve come across so far), and I’d also typed it up a year or two ago and included it as part of a birthday gift for my friend in December. Every time I find it, I sit and read it over and over and fall in love with it again.

It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite line because I mark every one as important when I’m reading. I remember a poetry professor trying to explain that concept to a class of naive writers years ago – we were workshopping our pieces toward the end of the semester, and in exasperation, he told us to take our poems and draw through every line that wasn’t essential. We all just sat there staring at him. Didn’t he know that our egos were far greater than our inner editors? Every line was a miracle! Every word we had written and brought to class was sacred! (It is almost impossible for me to read any of those poems now without cringing, laughing, or going in search of match to burn, burn them all!)

I realize now that I had almost no comprehension of what he was asking from us, and I also know that what he wanted was nearly impossible. Creating a poem where every line lives and breathes, where each new moment builds a greater whole – that’s a gift. I appreciate what my teacher was struggling to share with us though; it’s an idea I cherish now that I’ve had the opportunity to see it and explore the idea in other writers’ work. It’s also a structural concept I wish longer form writers would take into consideration. It’s easier when writing a novel to allow fluff and mess to slip in, and as a reader, I’m willing to let more slide, but I certainly wouldn’t mind the  detail Oliver levels at her poem in some of the books I read (or write, for that matter)…

To learn more about Mary Oliver, go here.

Live More, Want Less: 52 Ways to Find Order in Your Life, Mary Carlomagno

You’re going to have to bear with me on this one, because this is not Shakespeare. It’s not even the self-help equivalent of Shakespeare. It’s a simple, clear-cut advice book that I picked up on my kindle for two dollars. I found it while googling “how to learn to pack lightly while traveling,” an extension of an obsession this month with de-cluttering my home. The closet has been purged – gone are the sweaters that didn’t really fit, the shoes I thought were cute but never wore, that dress from…when was it? High school? The kitchen cabinets have been reorganized and the out-of-date canned goods have been removed. Our spare blankets and towels have been carefully refolded and put away. The garage has been attacked, viciously. All of the medicine in the house has been examined and sorted into bins. The stack of papers balancing precariously on the shredder for the last six months has been shredded. Even bedside table drawers were emptied and carefully refilled. No room has escaped this frenetic purging energy.

And with every task completed on my invisible and seemingly endless winter cleaning checklist, I have felt a small sense of accomplishment. Very small. Of course I appreciate the fact that getting dressed in the morning has never been easier, and that I have a box of books ready to sell to the second-hand store, but for me, organization (and its delightful kin, furniture rearrangement) is a sign of unrest. I clean when I feel mentally disorganized, and that often coincides with the beginning of the year when it seems like the rest of the world is good-naturedly undergoing the process of resolution setting.

I don’t really do resolutions, though not because I don’t believe in them. I just never get around to it at the beginning of January – how could I, when I’m inevitably out-of-town or just coming off a week of vacation? My brain isn’t in productivity mode on January 2, and once the first week has gone by, I feel so behind that I can’t even imagine diving in. This year, this was made worse by the fact that I spent all autumn immersed in a manuscript, and when I sent it off the second week of December, all I wanted was a break. Well, now I’m back, and the calendar is about to change again, and my brain is still sputtering away in hiatus mode.

So I clean. And while I’m doing it, some quiet, dark corners of my brain start to knit together again. I find a deep and strange peace in the folding off clothes and emptying of trash. Part of me recognizes it as fear that I’ve barely started my next project. Another part knows that this is how my Type A personality justifies procrastination. A third part decided to pick up this book and allow January a little space to be what it is – a transition.

I enjoyed reading these brief chapters about how to find a more restful existence by doing exactly what it is I’m already immersed in. It’s like writing out a checklist and including things that have already been finished just to have the satisfaction of marking items complete. Reading Live More, Want Less made me feel less guilty about having an off month because it reminded me of what I have accomplished while sitting around waiting to do something more significant.

Maybe that isn’t a good enough reason to read a book. Maybe I should be forcing myself to do things my brain isn’t ready for, but every time I try, I’m reminded of what school is like for many children. At one of the preschools where I taught, parents were insistent that the curriculum begin to lean toward teaching every child  to read by kindergarten. This is not only impossible, it’s developmentally inappropriate for roughly 99 percent of children, and as an added “bonus,” it turns a lot of children into self-doubting students who hate and fear books. It was a nightmare, to be honest, and even though I recognize that there was a positive intention behind the request, it broke my heart to force on children a skill they weren’t prepared for. After a year with the pre-K class, my director and I had a long talk and she supported the idea of me teaching a younger class of children. She knew that my goal was to create a loving environment that encouraged multiple pathways to learning, and she also knew which parents would be excited about that approach. Together, we found a middle ground – a place where I could be happier without completely rejecting the feedback we’d received from some of the parents.

Our brains are not ready for everything all the time. Many of us accept that idea when it comes to children but have a hard time realizing that adults are no different. I’ve read some amazing books over the last few weeks, and I’ve written some short stories that are way outside my comfort zone. I’ve also spent a lot of time staring out the window, and scrubbing things, and wishing I could daydream a little less and work a little more. I’m searching for order, and, I think, for a personal restart. I suppose I’m just getting ready for this year to really begin.

To learn more about Mary Carlomagno, head over here.

Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, Barack Obama

I had almost forgotten about this book, and about how I wanted to post about it on Inauguration Day. My mother had shown it to me when I was home at Christmas, and I fell in love with it immediately. Of course, part of that has to do with how big a fan I am of this particular president, and I realize that not all my readers share my political leanings. That’s fine with me. A healthy two-party system is an important part of the Democratic experience – we need discourse to survive and thrive as a nation – and while I don’t love the direction either party is taking at the moment, I do have tremendous respect for President Obama.

I’m not a political junkie, I have to admit. In fact, most of my knowledge about the government comes from watching The West Wing, much to the dismay of my brother, husband, and best friend. I’m surrounded by people who are passionate about the process, the details, and the story behind the story. I try to keep up because I know how crucial it is to be informed about decisions made on my behalf, but it isn’t fun for me. I have to work to get through the articles sent by well-meaning friends. I have to remember back to when I was a child and my parents made sure my brother and I were a part of their discussions concerning our country – and I have to ignore the fact that those conversations often lulled me into a stupor (which in retrospect, may have partially been their purpose). I have to remember how important it is to help to educate the youth I work with about their rights, and I have to remember that by discovering my own passion in this arena, I’m passing along the message that this is critical information for everyone.

But it’s not easy. It’s much easier for me to love the president because of the man that he appears to be. When I read this letter he wrote to his daughters, Of Thee I Sing, it was evident to me that this was only one of many reasons I feel so connected to him as a leader. I appreciate his quiet demeanor, his thoughtfulness, his ability to laugh at himself while still taking his duties seriously. I love how deeply he loves his family, respects his wife (don’t even get me started on how much I admire her – we could be here all day), and values his daughters. He doesn’t seem to be afraid of gentleness. And his book reflects all of those things.

The last four years have been difficult, not just for him in office, but for our country. We are struggling with renewed divisiveness, with a powerful demand for equality, with terrible violence, and with fear for the sanctity of our bodies, our bank accounts, our families, ourselves. We are struggling. I don’t know what the next four years hold. I don’t know what role the US will play in war and economic strife around the world, or what we will do to face our own mounting issues at home. I don’t know if President Obama will be able to deliver the hope he has promised, but I do believe he respects the value of hard work. I do believe he will try. I do believe he will set the best example he can for his own daughters, and for children everywhere who deserve the best efforts of us all.

 

The proceeds from the sale of Of Thee I Sing benefit a scholarship fund for the children of fallen and disabled veterans.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed

I realized that in spite of my hardships, as I approached the end of my first leg of my journey, I’d begun to feel a blooming affection for the Pacific Crest Trail. My backpack, heavy as it was, had come to feel like my almost animate companion. No longer was it the absurd Volkswagen Beetle I’d painfully hoisted on in that motel room in Mojave a couple of weeks before. Now my backpack had a name: Monster.

wildI meant it in the nicest possible way. I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprisingly of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding. It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away. (p 92)

In March and April of  2008, I went on an unguided whitewater rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I had been on exactly one other rafting trip in my life at that point, the summer before; it had lasted two nights, been very warm, and we had traveled through almost no rough water. Out of the eighteen people asked on this trip, I was by far the least experienced in every area. Everyone had been asked because they had some special skill to offer – the doctor, the rock climber, the guide – or because they were the brilliant children of one of these men. Even the thirteen year old who drove us a little crazy with his incessant talking had more experience than I did.  I had never been camping in a tent. I had never had to cook on a camp stove. I had never rowed a boat. I wasn’t a hiker. I wasn’t even strong. Before that trip, I hadn’t inflated a raft or loaded one – I didn’t even own a sleeping bag. I knew absolutely nothing about what I was getting into, and yet when my father-in-law (then, just a man I had met once or twice before) invited me to go on this trip – this exceptionally special trip he had been waiting his entire life to go on – I didn’t hesitate for a second. I didn’t think about all the things I didn’t know. I just said yes, yes please let me do this.

After I finished Wild, Strayed’s exceptional, lovely memoir about her eleven-hundred-mile solo hike on the PCT, I went and read through some of the things I had written about my own trip, the twenty-one day odyssey that changed me forever for the better. I found a picture someone had taken of me and another man staring out at the river, and I had written on it, Here’s Chuck and I before one of the big rapids. Neither of us liked to scout the rapids. I found it made me much more nervous, and since I had little control over the events about to unfold, I preferred ignorance. I really did too. Part of me always felt like I should walk up the trail with the rest of the party, to stare down at the churning water and pretend I could pick out the paths they were choosing between. I couldn’t though. The one time I went, I felt so sick with fear that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get back on my boat. And of course, that wasn’t an option. So I settled for not knowing, for trusting that when the time came, I would figure out how to do what had to be done.

And I mostly did, eventually (or as I liked to tease my parents, I lived, didn’t I?) Day by day, I learned that I would wake up with fear in my gut, and when the only choice was facing my fear, I would do just that. I would throw myself head first into fear, and I would call it bravery.

On that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by my father anymore.

There were so many other amazing things in this world.

They opened up inside of me like a river. Like I didn’t know I could take a breath and then I breathed. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next moment I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.

I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too. (p 234)

When we got back from our trip, I remember trying to tell the experience, tried to fit words into feelings I had never had before, about myself and about how I fit into the world. I would find myself staring at my hands, weathered and brown – they looked like the capable hands of someone else. And yet the blisters were mine. The scars, the new-found strength in my fingers – all mine. It was impossible to fully share what I had learned on the river to people who had never seen it. Not because I didn’t want to try, or because I felt superior for having survived such a trip – just the opposite, actually. I was deeply humbled by how little I had contributed. I had been next to useless, and yet I felt so huge and real from the experience. I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. I had seen exactly how superfluous I could be, and yet I had discovered a deep love for myself that I’d never had before.

Reading Wild, I got the feeling that Strayed had experienced something similar. Finishing her book was like having read something a part of me had written – it was achingly familiar, even though her stories are hers, and mine are mine.

This was once Mazama, I kept reminding myself. This was once a mountain  that stood nearly 12,000 feet tall and then had its heart removed. This was once a wasteland of lava and pumice and ash. This was once an empty bowl that took hundreds of years to fill. But hard as I tried, I couldn’t see them in my mind’s eye. Not the mountain or the wasteland or the empty bowl. They simply were not there anymore. There was only the stillness and silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began. (p 273)
 
 
To learn more about Cheryl Strayed, head over here.

The Explorer, James Smythe

When I was a kid, I remember reading a lot of straight up science fiction. Our local library was small, and it had one book shelf of YA books, one of those spinnable book displays with paperback fantasy novels, and a few shelves tucked away in a corner near the audio cassettes with hardback science fiction novels. No one ever  disturbed when I sat on the floor and pulled those unfamiliar titles out. My mother would leave me alone for half an hour or more looking for her own books, and I would slowly accumulate a pile of unfamiliar authors beside me.

Even now, years later, the only writers I remember clearly from those days are Heinlein and Brin, although I read just about every novel in the section eventually. Science fiction was, for me, an insight into a more masculine mind. The library made no special effort to purchase female authors in the genre, and I didn’t have the internet to search out a wider variety than what was presented. As a result, I drifted further from science fiction as I got older and craved books that reflected a perspective more similar to my own. It’s a shame, really, because when I read books like Smythe’s The Explorer, I feel as though a part of me that I lost long ago has been returned. It’s stunning to discover it still exists – that the part of me that secretly wanted to go to Space Camp in Florida, that still believes it might be possible to travel into space as a civilian someday soon, that is desperate for a world beyond the ordinary one we know.

Smythe’s narrative voice is just as alien to me as I remember from those authors years ago. I always struggle to explain what I mean when I say that a particular writer is more masculine than another, regardless of gender. It’s an argument I’ve had before when talking about The Lord of the Rings – different genre, but same…feel. Tolkien has a quality I find incredibly difficult to break into, and it can be a problem with sci-fi as well. I have to work harder to open myself to writers who fall into this category.

This is why I found it strange on Friday when I started this book and was immediately drawn to that very quality in Smythe’s writing. It had a sharp, cold edge to it, but given that in his opening pages I found myself in a tiny spaceship filled with corpses floating in the blackness of space, it worked for me. In fact, everything about this book worked for me. After having a frustrating, sad week, The Explorer was exactly what I needed. It was tough, and inevitable, and painfully remote.

I wrote a novel a few years ago called The Testimony, which had twenty-six different narrators, presented almost as talking heads. They were from all over world, telling a very big story about god and lies and terrorism, and it took a lot to write. Post-it notes on the walls, headaches, long walks to clear said headaches before returning to sort out the post-its, all that crazy stuff. When I was done, I decided that I had to write something completely different. Something that was, by necessity, a lot smaller. Self-contained. One narrator. Only a handful of characters, in fact, in the whole thing. And, I thought, lets start the book when they’re all dead, or most of them. Let’s start with my narrator, alone and horrifically lonely, and beginning to lose the plot. He can piece together the story – and himself – from there. (Smythe, writing for John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea”)

This was the only thing that appealed me to when I was looking through my new books this week. I wanted angst without romance, I wanted agony on a personal level, and I wanted it to take place as far from me as possible.

Can’t get much farther than space.

 

I highly recommend heading over to Harper Voyager’s page and reading the first chapter for free. That was all I needed to convince me I wanted to know more about The Explorer and James Smythe.

Cold Days: A novel of the Dresden Files, Jim Butcher (post the second)

Damn it Butcher! I hate your books that always end at the point when I most want them to go on!  I was even careful to savor this one. I stretched it out over almost two weeks, and that is essentially impossible to do. I worked at it. I kept the end at bay, and I cherished each moment, but somehow, that wasn’t enough to create an eternal novel.

See, that’s the tragedy of the human condition. No one wants to be corrupted by power when they set out to get it. They have good, even noble reasons for doing whatever it is they do. They don’t want to misuse it, they don’t want to abuse it, and they don’t want to become vicious monsters. Good people, decent people, set out to take the high road, to pick up power without letting it change them or push them away from their ideals. But it keeps happening anyway. (p 20)

You may not have started out with the intention of being a monster, but your power has grown too great, man, and that is precisely what’s happened. You luxuriate, now, in our desperate hope for new pages; our desire is the warm bed in which you sleep. Cold Days, indeed.

Maybe this was a male-female translation problem. I read an article once that said that when women have a conversation, they’re communicating on five levels. They follow the conversation that they’re actually having, the conversation that is specifically being avoided, the tone being applied to the overt conversation, the buried conversation that is being covered only in subtext, and finally the other person’s body language.

That is, on many levels, astounding to me. I mean, that’s like having a freaking superpower. When I, and most other people with a Y chromosome, have a conversation, we’re having a conversation. Singular. We’re paying attention to what is being said, considering that, and replying to it. All these other conversations that have apparently been going on for the last several thousand years? I didn’t even know that they existed until I read that stupid article, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

I felt somewhat skeptical about the article’s grounding. There were probably a lot of women who didn’t communicate on multiple wavelengths at once. There were probably men who could handle that many just fine. I just wasn’t one of them. (p 347)

Is that the problem, Butcher? Are we just having a translation problem here? Because I’m pretty sure I could find a male fan to help translate. “More, now” is what I would boil this down to for you. I would take my five conversations and condense them into two easily digestable words. I know you have plans for about six to nine more books, and god bless you for that, but patience is not one of my virtues. I.do.not.like.to.wait.

The problem is, Harry Dresden is the kind of character a girl gets addicted to. He’s a smart ass, fumbling, brilliant idiot, and if there’s one thing I love, it’s smart ass, fumbling, brilliant idiots. Especially in my pleasure reading. And when a smart ass, fumbling, brilliant idiot is combined with amazing, snarky friends, and villains who are in equal part lovable and loathable, magic is inevitable.

So please, sir, I beg you – nose to the grindstone – adoring fans await.

 

For more on the fiendish puppet master behind The Dresden Files, look here.