Running in Literature, Roger Robinson

“Runners know tiredness in all its many shades and effects. Among life’s significant memories, we carry those runs or races when tiredness was our stepping-stone to high achievement, and those when its deadweight sank us; days when it crept into our legs like a wasting disease, or suddenly leapt upon us like a cougar from a rock; times when we grappled with it, and overcame, and times when we were overcome.” (loc 68)

I’ve been flipping through this book since I got it at Christmas, and I have to say, it’s not my favorite on the subject. It’s not that it isn’t excellent at what it sets out to do – creating context and exploring the history of running in literature from ancient texts to poetry to modern juvenile fiction to resource books and beyond – it just doesn’t sit well with me during this off period of my own running.

I’d like to blame these bad months on giving up meat for Lent, but I only started that a few weeks ago, and this funk has been with me since the beginning of the summer. It would be so easy to call it a dietary imbalance and write it off, but I know it goes much deeper than that, and reading Robinson’s books was like salt in the wound. So much of what he captures in the excerpts he picks and in the stories he has pieced together reflect on running from what I would call “the expert’s perspective.”

I have solid runs, and I have miles that have felt amazing, but I will never have an under thirty minute 10k time, as the author has; my body simply isn’t built for that. Robinson comes from a place of knowledge about the sport that I cannot hope to imagine, and his writing draws from that innate, superior, bodily understanding. Even when he’s discussing literature that so epically captures the hardships of running, he doesn’t manage to capture my hardships so much as the struggles of those whose worst days are far better than my very best.

It’s not his fault. I came to running much later in life than I would like, and I suspect I will always relate more closely to writers like John Bingham or Peter Sagal than I will men like Robinson, who, in tone and nature, may be more inclined toward seriousness in sport than I am. For the history buff though, this book is a lovely exploration of running throughout the ages, and for runners who are not in a pout, as I am, his writing certainly captures the elegance of the sport with ease.

For those like me, however, who have been plodding along trying to reignite that light-hearted, joyful spark on the trails, this may serve as a reminder that there exist paintings on ceramic vases portraying more life-like, fleet-footed running than I manage to do most days…

For more on Roger Robinson, head over here.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

“I didn’t mind getting old when I was young, either,” I said. “It’s the being old now that’s getting to me.” (p 13)

So, I finally broke down and read Old Man’s War. I honestly have no idea why it took me so long. I love Scalzi; I read his blog daily and I’ve both read his latest novel Redshirts and listened to Wil Wheaton read it (roughly a month apart – it’s so good, it bears repeating). His sense of humor completely resonates with me, and his political posts are some of the best I’ve read.

For some reason though, I had been holding out on entering the universe he created with this novel. I had the idea that it wasn’t for me – that my geek card was missing the stamp necessary to gain entry into his world. As it turns out, and I’m not sure how many times I’m going to have to learn this lesson, books are for anyone who chooses to read them – no application required.

I do suspect, however, that part of what was off-putting to me was the title. It’s a great title, and it’s perfectly suited for the book, but as I am not old (well, except to the high schoolers I work with), a man, nor a soldier, it created something of chasm between me and a wonderful read. Those three words – I looked at them and I imagined a novel my grandfathers would like to read. Both were veterans of WWII, and both were defined, each in his own way, by the experience. They were neither greater nor lesser men than my father or brother, who never enlisted, but they were certainly different. I could never quite touch the stories they shared with me about war. It was an experience that set them apart, and when I spent time with them while I was growing up, their personal histories were further shrouded by the decades between us.

“Lady and gentleman,” Harry said, looking at the both of us, “we may think we have some idea of what we’re getting into, but I don’t think we have the first clue. This beanstalk exists to tell us that much. It’s bigger and stranger than we can imagine – and it’s just the first part of this journey. What comes next is going to be even bigger and stranger. Prepare yourself as best you can.”

“How dramatic,” Jesse said dryly. “I don’t know how to prepare myself after a statement like that.”

“I do,” I said, and scooted over to get out of the booth. “I’m going to go pee. If the universe is bigger and stranger than I can imagine, it’s best to meet it with an empty bladder.”

“Spoken like a true Boy Scout,” Harry said.

“A Boy Scout wouldn’t need to pee as much as I do,” I said.

“Sure he would,” Harry said. “Just give him sixty years.” (pg 29)

After reading this book, the only thing I knew for certain (besides that I loved it and immediately needed to read the sequel) was that I wouldn’t mind living in Scalzi’s universe when I turn 75. I hate the idea of being a soldier now, but it turns out that reading about the human body slowly deteriorating, as it naturally does as we age, invokes in me an unshakable fear of death. It turns out I’m actually inclined to see the wisdom in enlisting in a mythical army with the power to turn me into a young, powerful fighting machine when I have lived nearly eighty years, even if it means doing things that are abhorrent to consider now. I’m not sure what that says about me – probably nothing good – but it’s the truth.

It’s one thing to think you want to be young again; it’s quite another thing to turn your back on everything you’ve ever known, everyone you’ve ever met or loved, and every experience you’ve ever had over the span of seven and a half decades. It’s a hell of a thing to say good-bye to your whole life. (p 11)

I can’t imagine saying goodbye to my whole life right, but that’s because my body (mostly) does what I ask of it. And my family and friends are (mostly) still alive. If I lived long enough to be given the choice offered in this novel – to say goodbye to Earth and give myself over to a science and military I cannot fathom – it might not be so terrible. Or maybe it would. I can’t really know for sure, but a part of me loves the idea that an adventure is waiting as life draws to a close. As much as I love predictability and my routines (and I really do), I’m also drawn to life’s mystery doors, and what this novel suggests is like Narnia for the elderly. Without the magic, of course (unless, like me, you consider science to be magic). And with a lot more death, and sex, and space ships.

Look, you: When you’re twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five or even fifty-five, you can still feel good about your chances to take on the world. When you’re sixty-five and your body is looking down the road at imminent physical ruin, these mysterious “medical, surgical and therapeutic regimens and procedures” begin to sound interesting. Then you’re seventy-five, friends are dead, and you’ve replaced at least one major organ; you have to pee four times a night, and you can’t go up a flight of stairs without being a little winded – and you’re told you’re in pretty good shape for your age.

Trading that in for a decade of fresh life in a combat zone begins to look like a hell of a bargain. (p 9)

 

Need more Scalzi? Head here.

A Calendar of Tales, Neil Gaiman (and you)

If you’re on twitter and follow Neil Gaiman, you probably already know about his project with Blackberry, called Keep Moving. It started as an advertising campaign, and when I first heard about it in January, I was skeptical. Even with Gaiman involved, ads are ads. They can be great, but at the end of the day, the purpose is still to sell a product to me that I probably don’t need. Nevertheless, because I do follow him, and I don’t understand how to mute a user (or maybe because I’m just too lazy to do it), I’ve been keeping up with the project by default.

During the first week of February, Gaiman got the ball rolling on his end. He told his followers that for twelve hours, he would be posting (once an hour) writing prompts for every month of the year. At the end of the day, he would choose one for each month and write a story about it. He had about a week to write all twelve, and a crew from Blackberry would be documenting the process. If a person wanted to suggest a prompt to him, they should include the month’s hashtag (ie #KeepMoving #JanTale or OctTale or JulTale, etc). I was on vacation when this happened, and when I got back and checked my Twitter feed, it had exploded with all the prompts he had ended up retweeting. They were exquisite little stories in themselves, and if you’re curious about them, they can be found, infinitely, by searching the hashtags above. In fact, I highly recommend it, especially for writers, because as long as you aren’t going to publish a story based on one of those prompts without permission of the original poster (or if you are, do get permission from that person), they make for excellent story starters.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at Gaiman’s A Calendar of Tales and tell me he hasn’t crafted remarkable short stories out of 140 character tweets. I’m excited for the next stage of the project as well (although I haven’t been following it as closely), where people are asked to submit artwork to illustrate the stories he has written. My hope is that one day, the print art and the stories will be turned into a book for purchase; it’s something I would dearly love to own, even knowing that it emerged out of an advertising campaign.

I think it comes back to the idea I was discussing in the review I wrote about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. We can’t always predict where or how the stories we love will enter the world. If we shun them just because they come from someplace unexpected, we’re going to miss out on a lot of great stuff, especially living in a world increasingly opened by world-wide access to the internet. It provides opportunities for all kinds of people to create and share new variations of art; in this case, it’s a well-known author, but it could be anybody. That’s the beauty of it. This kind of accessibility means we have opportunities to make stories together that we could not have imagined ten or fifty or five hundred years ago.

I don’t always post about books suitable for everyone, but these stories, emerging as they have from so many different hearts, have a hook for readers of nearly every age and genre. It’s possible none of them will resonate, but if that’s true, then go and read the thousands of other stories, and potential stories, that were created from this project. Or write your own, based on his question prompts. This is an idea that is, essentially, infinite.

And infinite, to me, just means there’s always room for one more.

 

Neil Gaiman can be found here, or on twitter @neilhimself.

Litany, Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea-cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.

You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and – somehow – the wine.

…So, do you know that feeling you get when you write a whole post (insert your creative or work-related outlet here), and then you look at it and think, “No. Just…no.”

That’s what has happened to me. I’m actually surprised it doesn’t happen more often, but I’m glad too, because deleting a thousand words has a powerfully negative effect on my mood. It had to be done, but I sort of feel like punching something now, so I suppose it’s good that I recently took up boxing and have an outlet.

You see, my best friend is visiting, and I gave her this poem as part of her birthday gift back in December. Having her here with me made me want to share it again – which is actually how my favorite poems always make me feel – once I unfold it to one person, I want the rest of the world to read it with me.

I gave her a whole book of poems, in fact, and pictures – all things that reminded me of the twenty years of friendship we had been fortunate enough to share, and out of everything in the book, I think (and I could be wrong, but when you’ve known and loved someone for twenty years, sometimes you just know) that this was the one piece that gave her pause.

It was hard to sit with her while she read through the whole book, but at the same time, I did it because I wanted to see moments like this, where she read and thought and tilted her head just so, then smiled. It’s a difficult pregnant moment, that pause, and I held my breath and felt my stomach squirm because what if she didn’t understand? It’s a difficult concept to grasp, even between dear friends, but nobody could write it and have it make sense the way that Collins does.

He somehow manages to capture the essential love, but also the spaces necessary to a relationship. We are not all things to all people, not even those closest to us. We often see this most clearly as we grow out of the tight bonds we have with our parents when we are young, but it happens with every person we care about. It is not just important, but in fact critical that the emotional and physical distance grows so that we may find our own selves at the bottom of it all. This is a hard thing. Our hearts don’t always grow apace with those we love, and sometimes our favorite relationships change in fits and starts. The strong ones survive and adapt while the weaker pass from us.

I’ve had this happen many times now, and I know just how much it hurts to ask the heart to shift itself for the better. It’s tough to say and to understand that “you are mine, but you are also yours, and maybe theirs. You are mine, but you are not everything – I am some things and some things are neither you nor me.” But the ones who love us well understand eventually. They hold themselves still in the pauses and listen, and wait, and understand.

 

You can find out more about Billy Collins here. And I also highly recommend watching the video below of this child, who had a chance to meet Collins when NPR did a story on this, recite “Litany.”

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (post the second), Catherynne M Valente

“For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it.” (pg 8)

Tonight, I was sitting in our church’s tiny Ash Wednesday service, and we sang one of my all-time favorite songs. While I probably should have been reflecting on the season of Lent stretching ahead of me, or about sacrifice, or prayer, instead, I was thinking about this book. I finished it a few days ago, but after posting on Monday, I didn’t feel like I had much more to add. It was a beautiful read, but I couldn’t find the inspiration to write something as thought-provoking as I felt it deserved. It wasn’t until we started singing together that I was swept up by how the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” remind me of the journeys, like September’s, that I most enjoy reading about.

In case you’re not familiar with the song, these are the verses I love best:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
the hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far
and Grace will lead us home.

I remember singing this at camp when I was a child, sitting with all my friends and looking out at the White Mountains, the night sky stretching above us. The words just flowed out of me, and when we finished, I wanted to sing it again. I get that same feeling still, this powerful surging desire for adventure with all the trials and growth it brings. I long for the mysteries that test me and make me stronger and more compassionate, that will tame my wild, raw heart without chaining it too tightly.

Of course, it helps that I think we create our own grace. We make it, give it, seek it, long for it – grace is, to me, an expression of our best, bravest, most selfless hearts – it is the part of us that steps up and becomes, even if it is only in a tiny way or for a single moment, heroic. It is our conscience and our grit, our faith in ourselves and our trust in the goodness of others.

“September did not know yet how sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked up away at the bottom of their hearts. They do this because they are afraid of the world and of being stared at, or relied upon to do feats of bravery or boldness. And all of those brave and wild and cunning and marvelous and beautiful parts they hid away and left in the dark to grow strange mushrooms – and yes, sometimes those wicked and unkind parts, too – end up in their shadow.” (p 77)

When we’re young, it’s so much easier to brave and wild and cunning and marvelous. Each of our worlds are pinpoints of light, and we are at the center, shining more brightly and callously than we could ever believe when we’re all grown up and looking back. We can’t imagine how it was that we were simultaneously so fearless and heartless and young! Our minds were hardly made up at all. We could take one road, then turn off into the darkest woods with only the tiniest of hesitations niggling in the back of our brains. We could intentionally lose ourselves again and again because somehow, some peculiar whirling internal compass compelled us to – for how else would we find ourselves if not by getting completely turned around?

Thus is the murky world of childhood. The monsters are more terrifying, or we maybe are just more helpless, and yet, we are also more resilient, more willing to risk everything for the chance at some unknowable reward. Valente has captured this gamble, this scrambling from the cold grasping of childhood to the passionate frustration of adolescence, leaving us, at the end, on the tricky cusp of adulthood.

Those of us who are already grown can see our own paths leading backwards – the enemies we have vanquished, and the ones who have vanquished us, the delicate lives we have trampled and the people we have saved, even the grace we have given and that which we have received – it’s all there for us to see and remember and regret. I can’t help but love September, with her bursting, untamed heart, even though I know, as does Valente, that the happy ending of this story is only a moment on the girl’s larger journey. There will be greater mountains for her to climb yet, and bitterness will seep in with love, but that’s the adventure of growing up for all of us, isn’t it?

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (post the first), Catherynne M Valente

There are some books that just bound and determined to keep me from reading them quickly, and this is one of them. To be fair, The first book in this collection, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, had the same effect on me. I’m actually amazed I managed to get through that one in two posts.

Let me be clear – this is not at all an issue of quality. Valente is an incredibly gifted writer, and she weaves wonderful stories for her readers. The difficulty for me is that her books are, well, feasts. Visually speaking, she creates such a rich world that I cannot read it at my normal rate. I have to keep pausing to imagine what Alice in Wonderland-esque quirks she’s telling me about. I love it, but it’s also exhausting to the mental eye. I read maybe two or three of these brief chapters at a time and I feel completely full. I need to take time to live in her world before I can go on.

Valente has the ability to make me feel as though I’m a part of this place she’s created, but the price I must pay is speed. I cannot be my efficient, grown-up self if I want to come and quest with her. And I do. I desperately do – who doesn’t? Who hasn’t heard of Neverland and wondered what it would be like to fly through the window one night? Who hasn’t wanted to trade junior high gym class for a letter from Hogwarts? Who hasn’t been willing to take on the weight of the world in exchange for magic and mystery and heroics?

I think we all want it, in our ways.

Of course, our desires don’t all look the same. I grew up loving Anne McCaffery’s Pern and Piers Anthony’s Xanth, so my perspective on another world may look very different from an eleven year old girl who has read The Hunger Games, and Divergent, and Harry Potter at a highly impressionable age. Granted, I’ve read all those books and loved them too, so when I imagine what I might find if I climbed through a wardrobe, it has the elements of years of pages lovingly turned.

What stays the same though, through decades of literature and analytical critique, is that having a child’s open mind and hard heart is a strength. At the end of an adventure, of course, one does well to be wiser, but at the beginning? Not at all. In order to gain entrance, you must shrink down and let go of logic completely. That is not such an easy thing as we get older and struggle with practicalities all day, every day. Our sense of whimsy fades. Our patience for magic wanes. We read too quickly, and we forget to fall down into the rabbit hole of the story.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I love stories, and I have to cling to a version of myself that I barely remember when I open a book like this. I try to call back the stars to my eyes, desperately wishing for that sure, bright sight I used to have, but it gets harder every year. Even Wendy had to grow up eventually, the adventures of her youth becoming bedtime stories for new children. I always thought that was a desperately sad thing, that final moment when Peter returns for his friend and she has grown up on him. I don’t feel badly for him though – no – I ache for her, for all those years she told herself those tales so that she could remember what it felt like to taste magic.

In these stories, there are always people who inhabit a magical land, who get to live there forever, and then there are the people who have managed to sneak in, the people we follow just in case, someday, we find our path. Their stories are roadmaps for our secret, questing hearts. We must read them carefully or risk missing the moment when our opportunity flits past.

 

For more about Catherynne M Valente, visit her beautiful page here.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, developed by Hank Green and Bernie Su

So, I may have missed the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice by a week(ish), and for that, I apologize. I’m especially sorry because I love Jane Austen, and I really love Pride and Prejudice, and well, I’m fastidious about celebrating significant anniversaries.

I can still remember laying on my bed in the sun when I was in the seventh or eighth grade, happily paging through my mother’s old copies of Austen. This was the same way I discovered Louisa May Alcott, the Brontë sisters, and Dickens, in fact, and to this day, when I visit my parents and spend time in my old bedroom (now an office), if the sun is coming in at just the right angle, I feel this twitch deep in my bones for a few hours with those old (old) friends.

That being said, I’m also a sucker for a good reinterpretation, and my current Austen favorite (not quite edging out the 2005 film, but in a very solid second) has appeared in the form of a series of brief webisodes available on YouTube. I discovered The Lizzie Bennet Diaries about two months ago and watched sixty of these 2-5 minute episodes in one go. You may rightly assume productivity that day was at an all-time low. I was undeniably hooked, and although I know you come to me for recommendations on literature rather than…well, whatever category videos on the internet fall into…you’re just going to have to branch out with me this once.

The biggest reason I’m advocating for these videos (putting aside my obvious obsession) is that I love to see people get excited by stories. Sure, I often reach for a book above all else, and I’m thrilled to be able to offer you with the opportunity to read Pride and Prejudice for free here or on your kindle (also free) over here. Please go read it. Pass it along to a friend or child or student to read. It’s a wonderful book, and I get swept away by it every time I pull it off the shelf. That being said, literature, to me, survives and thrives when we allow it some space to breath. Maybe these videos won’t inspire anyone to read the book; maybe they’re meant for people like me who are already fans, but I like to believe otherwise.

I enjoy imagining that the creativity that led to this project will inspire others to try something new as well. It thrills me to see young people getting excited by a book that’s two hundred years old, and if their first exposure to it has to come in a palatable, modern format, that’s okay with me. It’s the end result I’m looking for – the passion, the excitement for storytelling, the belief that a text that seems complicated or distant can be made accessible!

As you may have guessed, I’m not exactly the hipster queen of reading. There’s no wrong way to love stories, nor is there a less worthy route to becoming a person who loves to read or interpret books. It shames us, as lovers of reading, when we forget how fortunate we are, by birth or education or luck, that we have countless worlds and words at our disposal; the only remedy I’ve found is in embracing all the facets of storytelling. It’s impossible to know what experience might speak to a person, or offer encouragement to explore the written word for those who always felt that stories were meant for someone else.

I unabashedly love this videos. It’s been amazing to share them with my family, and with the youth that I mentor, and now, with you. This is a classic taken a thoughtful, modern twist, and I hope, even if this isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll check it out at least to see what’s possible with a storyteller’s enthusiasm.

 

Here’s the link to Episode 1. If you’re anything like me, I’ll see you in three to six hours. Oh, and Lizzie’s sister Lydia? She has spectacular videos too; I highly recommend watching them interlaced with the LB Diaries for a more complete story. For a complete picture of the project, head here.

Oh, and remember, if you just aren’t into videos, you can read the original book for free online at either of the links above..