The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” (p 112)

If you were to do search for The Ocean at the End of the Lane this week, you would surely find hundreds of reviews about it. Dozens of them have been brilliantly written by friends of Neil Gaiman; these people have Opinions about this book being the best Gaiman has ever written and they are worth reading. They know him and they know great literature, and one way or another, they will tell you the same thing I will.

It is a beautiful book, and you should read it.

You don’t really need to read anything else I have to say about it. “It’s a beautiful book, and you should read it” sums up the general consensus. Everything after this point is just…me.

It’s me wondering how hard it has been for Neil Gaiman to carry around this story. The boy in the book is him. Or at least I believe it’s him. In his acknowledgements, he’s quick to say it isn’t, not really, but it is. Maybe the father is not his father and the house is not his house and the monster is not his monster, but all the same, it’s still him more than any of his other books have been.

I’ve been reading his books and blog for long enough to recognize the drain pipe and escapism and quiet, fearful truths as his. He’s been hinting at this book for years, whether he knew it or not. It became obvious as soon as I started to read. The way the man walked down the road in the prologue, or how there was forgiveness in the end, but also a vein of hurt that never completely opened itself up…

It wasn’t so much like finding his diary, though, as it was burrowing into his memory for an hour or two. It was as I imagined Gaiman’s memory to be – eternally struggling between the dark and the light. It frightened me, but I also knew that I would find goodness there. I wanted to protect the child in these pages, but not too much, because I could imagine the man he would grow to be if he was allowed to face down his own fears. This man would write wonderful stories and then read them aloud to weave the magic and hold it there. He would reveal  wonder lurking in all the most ordinary places, even if the luster of it was sometimes worn or sharp-edged or dangerous. He would catch my heart when I was a child and remind me that this was the heart I would always have. I would never grow up, not really, but I would live in the world anyway, and be happy about it, wrapping my hands around the truest truths I understood at seven, and taking them, always, with me.

I have always accepted that this is a world of monsters, although I don’t know if it’s because of how long I’ve been reading books like his, or just who I was meant to be – an anxious believer. In the darkness, there has always been something lurking; it may be an adventure as easily as fear, or it may be a terrible invitation, or it might be just a shadow. The thing about that though, is we need light to see a shadow’s true shape, and to name it. Those troublesome blind spots carve the light into something stronger, and  I wield it, and others do, and then both darkness and light are improved by the struggle.

Which is all just my way of saying, it’s a beautiful book, and you should read it.

 

For more about Neil Gaiman, go here.

Advice to Little Girls, Mark Twain with illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky

As an adult, I seem to have developed a gift for wasting time when I have it, only to run headfirst into a pile of deadlines and travel I have known about for two months. I don’t know when this happened. When I was a child, I was meticulous about assignments. I won awards for punctuality and perfect attendance every year. I was the person my friends called at ten pm the night before something was due in a panic; to this day, I have no idea what they thought I could do for them, but as I slide further behind (and it’s only Monday!), I suspect it had less to do with seeking guidance than it did warding off the problem for another half an hour.

I myself have become excellent at warding off the problem for another half an hour. I do find myself wishing I spent less of this procrastinatory time trolling the internet for recorded productions of Much Ado About Nothing and more of it picking up the house or going for a run, because at the end of the day, it’s one thing to have unfinished piles of work, and quite another to have unfinished piles of work and also no clean underwear or spoons.

Not to worry though – I went to Target for new clothes and ate my coconut milk ice cream with a fork, so I’m good on that front at least. As for the work, well, let’s just claim that it’s percolating and watch this video for the seventieth time. I justified re-watching it this morning because Catherine Tate inadvertently does such a wonderful job bringing to life the spirit of this little book by Mark Twain (and if you’re a fan of Dr Who and/or familiar with Shakespeare, the clip is especially a treat). When I saw it for the first time, I was immediately reminded of this page from the book:

Even though the book is only twenty or so pages, I love Mark Twain was tickled to stumble on this little gem. The book itself is lovely, and I’m glad I bought a hardbound copy of it so I can enjoy what has been done with the text. I’m a sucker for picture books, and it’s great to find one well-suited for an older audience (there’s nothing quite like reading a book to a child and snickering at jokes they don’t yet understand as retribution for having to read much stupider stories ad nauseam).

Most of the books I read, I read for content, story, characters, etc…this one is more of a collectible. It suits the part of me that doesn’t mind that I grew up going to visit the homes of famous writers on every family vacation (what did other families do – hike? ride water slides? I really have no idea, but I knew what a docent did by the age of four). Its arrival on my doorstep also perfectly coincided with a week from hell, and nothing makes a hard week brighter than a dose of what my husband calls “old-timey” humor. So excuse me while I go use my time as unwisely as possible – Twain’s told me it’s alright, and look how well he did for himself…

The full text of the story can be found here (because public domain = yay!).

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

There was something fitting about picking up this book over Father’s Day weekend. I first fell in love with it when it appeared on a syllabus for one of my classes in Early Education at UCLA, and, in fact it is, along with its “cousin,” Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, my go-to book for family dynamic issues. It’s been years now since I’ve read it, and I had forgotten just how much of my teaching philosophy stems from this book, but after spending the evening babysitting my neighbor’s children, I decided a refresher course was in order. (That came out wrong. The boys are delightful and I adore them, but right around the time I was commando-crawling out of their room hoping they wouldn’t wake up as I slid over the creaky floorboards, it occurred to me that it never hurts to take a second look at a great resource.)

Both Siblings and How to Talk are quick reads – perfect for the hectic parental lifestyle – and they include hilariously old-school cartoons, stories from parents, and Quick Reminder pages to distill information for the most harried readers. My copy is also filled with highlighted paragraphs and scribbled notes in the margin; the fact that I never mark up my books leads me to believe that upon first reading, I was absolutely terrified this information wouldn’t sink in.

My teaching career at that point was mainly hinging on a naturally empathetic nature and a high threshold for stickiness and screaming. I didn’t have many tools at my disposal, and I was panicked that I had already been hired by a lovely school desperately in need of teacher’s aides. Even though I wouldn’t be taking point in the classroom my first year, I still felt wildly unprepared (a feeling I suspect many parents share). As an educator and a student, however, I was fortunate enough to have more than my fair share of amazing professors who recommended resources like this one and were paid to spend time discussing the finer details. I learned so much from them, and as I took this information in, I was able to turn my time in the classroom into a wonderful experience.

Not everyone has that opportunity, of course. Even though this book was written in 1980, I’ve met very few parents who have read it, although I know plenty who are bombarded by complete crap on the internet on an hourly basis. I’ve spent a lot of time in the parenting sections of bookstores and  websites reading about claims to fix everything from colic to biting to tardiness, and it seems to me that most of the material is designed to make parents less secure (and therefore more likely to buy buy buy a solution).

Faber and Mazlish have a more holistic approach. Everything they discuss comes from a combination of personal experience and study with the esteemed child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott . Not only have they used these methods with their own children, but they’ve also led workshops on this subject all over the country for many years. They’ve tested what they teach, and they have encouraged their audience to experiment, question, and explore these resources with a critical eye. Through all of this, they are optimistic about the possibility of building healthy, respectful relationships within the family and classroom, and the techniques they present are simple and straightforward.

As I was pouring over the material on Sunday, I couldn’t help but compare these ideas with my own upbringing. At first, I found myself being extremely critical – I could only see the things I would have done differently. After more consideration though, I realized that my parents had used quite a few of these suggestions when raising us. I don’t know if they were motivated by something they read or if it simply came from a natural instinct to be trusting and compassionate, but the foundation was definitely there. I realized that between them and the parents of my closest friends, the combined parenting styles stretched over just about all of the material covered in the book.

Wouldn’t it be great it have all that patience and skill in one family? Of course, but I’m ninety-seven percent sure it’s impossible, and in the end, I don’t think it mattered. Spending time with those families gave us exposure to a wider variety of ideas about limits, discipline, and family roles and helped to shape us into the people we are today. And remarkably, we’re all still friends, most likely because, despite our flaws and differences, we share the same values of love, forgiveness, and perseverance instilled at a young age.

That being said, I wish parents would read books like this because families deserve to live better. Parents, children, siblings – and to be honest, anyone who has to interact with other people  – should take time to learn how to communicate more effectively, and Mazlish and Faber make it easy. Cooperation shouldn’t be a desperate and unachievable goal. Shared responsibility shouldn’t be impossible. Respect should definitely not be a one way street. Regardless of age, we all want to be treated well, to have our ideas heard, and to feel like valued and contributing members of our communities. I’ve seen these ideas at work, and the results are well worth the time it takes to read the book.

 

For more about Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (including details about organizing workshops), head over here.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris

This may sound obvious, but sometimes I reread things simply because I want to feel a certain way. When it comes to Sedaris, my go-to piece is his short story, “Repeat After Me” from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I’m happy to say the story is available for free online both to read and listen to, and I recommend you take ten minutes to check it out if you’ve never come across it before. As a writer, Sedaris is well-known his sense of humor, but I’ve always found his work to be more in the vein of tragi-comedy than anything else, and this story in particular wrecks me every time I read it.

He’s not the person I go to when I want a good laugh; instead, I seek him out when I want to think about what it means to be a writer and a sister and a flawed individual all rolled into one. So much of his work is about his family or his personal life, and it’s painful to witness. Sure, I can laugh at some of it – he’s damn good at what he does – but more often, I sink into melancholy .

All the best comedians are capable of manipulating me that way. The people I find the wittiest are also the sharpest and meanest and stupidest when it comes to the people they love. Those that choose humor as a career are often damaged and in need of a little extra care, and I love that about them. There is something remarkably powerful about a person so vulnerable who is also brave enough to stand up and declare himself a fool. It’s a gift to be able to spin pain into laughter, but it’s even more impressive to do it while retaining more than a shadow of excruciating truth.

I still remember the first time I read this piece, back in 2007. I had borrowed the book from a friend and was flipping around from story to story (which is very unlike me – I’m a linear reader to the last). “Repeat After Me” caught me completely off-guard, and I reread the last page of the story over and over again. That last paragraph buried itself into my heart like a hatchet, and no amount of tugging has ever loosened it from there. I read it at least once a year now just to see if I can look into that moment without flinching. I don’t know what I expect to happen, or if I even really want the feeling to change. I just know that I have to look…

 

For more about David Sedaris, go here.

The Trouble with Poetry and other poems, Billy Collins

What can I say about one of Billy Collins’ poems that can’t be said about a book of them? That he is gradually becoming my favorite poet as I read more of his work? That his greatest gift is taking soft, insignificant moments and turning them into iridescent experiences for his readers? That he sees the world so much like I do and yet captures it a thousand times more beautifully?

You, Reader

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you,

that it was I who got up early
to sit in the kitchen
and mention with a pen

the rain-soaked windows,
the ivy wallpaper,
and the goldfish circling in its bowl.

Go ahead and turn aside,
bite your lip and tear out the page,
but, listen — it was just a matter of time

before one of us happened
to notice the unlit candles
and the clock humming on the wall.

Plus, nothing happened that morning –
a song on the radio,
a car whistling along the road outside –

and I was only thinking
about the shakers of salt and pepper
that were standing side by side on a place mat.

I wondered if they had become friends
after all these years
or if they were still strangers to one another

like you and I
who manage to be known and unknown
to each other at the same time –

me at this table with a bowl of pears,
you leaning in a doorway somewhere
near some blue hydrangeas, reading this. (p 3)

What has drawn me to him lately is that his writing illustrates the points of a poetry professor I despised in college. I can’t remember his name anymore, but I recall the tension around the table as we dissected the amateur work of every student as though it was yesterday. I thought that seminar was where the fevered scribbling of poetry went to die. It was surely death to my self-confidence at the time. Whenever I read Collins’ poetry, though, I have a revelation. I have a bone-deep feeling that a truly special poem does require a sort of ineffable twist to reveal its greatness – a quality I barely understood then, and certainly could not create on my own.

It’s not often that learning, especially when it comes to writing, has these “aha!” moments. It’s also not often that my education is very nearly tangible, and I cling to the feeling, even though the lesson may have left a bitter taste in my mouth at the time. It is a click, a slotting into place of something once parroted, now understood.

As children, knowledge is poured over us every moment as we discover the world, but as experience dulls the edge of discovery, it’s easy to miss those gentle shifts of understanding. These days, as I see my formal education retreating as rapidly as a ship from shore, I try not to take moments like this for granted.

The Lanyard

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even. (p 45)

 

For more about Billy Collins, go here.

The Last Unicorn (post the second), Peter S Beagle

So, apparently, this book was first published in 1968. It had its fortieth edition printing in 2008, and we’re in 2013, so I’ve really missed the boat. Also, a cult classic animated movie exists that I somehow missed during my childhood (not too surprising since my brother was five years older and picked all the television we got to watch – it was mostly the Dukes of Hazzard during my formative years – which explains a lot, now that I think about it…). When I called my mother up last week to tell her about this great book I had found, she said, “Oh yes, I think I read that the year it was published,” which simultaneously made her feel old and me, stupid. Well, hats off to ROC for rewrapping an old favorite for a new generation of readers!

Over the last year and a half, I’ve gotten to read plenty I might not have otherwise because I want the opportunity to talk about a diverse selection of books here. I haven’t been perfect; in fact, I haven’t even been close. My tastes naturally lean toward genre fiction (and I include YA under that umbrella). It will always be a struggle for me to motivate myself to choose history or politics over a really great novel, but I assume that if you’ve stuck with me thus far (as a painter friend told me last week, “I keep meaning to read your reviews, but there are just so many words!”), you already know this. You don’t need to be reminded, so why am I saying anything about it now? Well, it’s because I want you to know that when I recommend a book like The Last Unicorn with unbridled passion, it’s because I have read thousands of books like it in my lifetime and I know a one-of-a-kind reading experience when I see it.

I read with enthusiasm all sorts of books – memoirs, poetry, travel, science – and my recommendations for them are certainly founded in my education and life experience. I love discovering great books in less familiar territory, and it’s exciting to be able to share those with you. When it comes to my true expertise though, a gold star for a book like this comes from the most entrenched part of my passion for reading. Some people know the details of the solar system, or baseball, or the situation in the Middle East; while I have a fondness for learning about such things, they will never be a part of me the way this type of fiction is – it is a limb, and my history, and the escape I most rely on. Books like this are a part of what makes me whole.

So when I say that you should read it, examine yourself first. Decide what kind of books turn you inside out. Ask yourself what you look for in those stolen moments with the page. For me, I need wonder and magic and sadness; I need redemption and heroes who occasionally go for a cheap laugh; I need bridges burned.

“When I was dead-,” King Lir began, but she was away. Not a stone rattled down after her, not a bush tore out as she sprang up the cliff. She went as lightly as the shadow of a bird; and when she looked back, with one cloven foot poised, and the sunlight on her sides, with her head and neck absurdly fragile for the burden of the horn – then each of the three below called to her in pain. She turned and vanished; but Molly Grue saw their voices thump home into her like arrows, and even more than she wished the unicorn back, she wished that she had not called.” (pg 272)

I understand not everybody needs books like this one, but I do.

The Last Unicorn (part the first), Peter S Beagle

The unicorn was grey and still. “There is magic on me,” she said. “Why did you not tell me?”

“I thought you knew,” the magician answered gently. “After all, didn’t you wonder how it could be that they recognized you?” Then he smiled, which made him look a little older. “No, of course not. You never would wonder about that.”

“There has never been a spell on me before,” the unicorn said. She shivered long and deep. “There has never been a world in which I was not known.”

“I know exactly how you feel,” Schmendrick said eagerly. The unicorn looked at him out of dark, endless eyes, and he smiled nervously and looked at his hands. “It is a rare man who is taken for what he truly is,” he said. “There is much misjudgment in the world. Now, I knew you for a unicorn when I first saw you, and I know that I am your friend. Yet you take me for a clown, or a clod, or a betrayer, and so I must be if you see me so. The magic on you is only magic and will vanish as soon as you are free, but the enchantment of error that you put on me I must wear forever in your eyes. We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream. Still I have read, or heard it sung, that unicorns when time was young, could tell the difference ‘twixt the two – the false shining and the true, the lips’ laugh and the heart’s rue.” (pg 40)

I’ve been trying to savor this book, choosing to read it only a chapter or two at a time even though it lends itself to a hurried read, and for that reason, I’ve had the opportunity to be struck by passages like this one. On the one hand, the story itself transports me back to childhood, with its shady glens and mystical beasts – it has all the magic I searched for with less experienced eyes; on the other, moments like the one above remind me of the endless struggle of growing up, the struggle that continues even after enough years have passed that a birthday cake looks more like a melting wax torch than a celebration.

The Last Unicorn is such a melancholy adventure. Its protagonist is a character that lives for an eternity, after all. I find it hard enough to be mortal, to have the years I have and hope desperately that they are enough, that I will make some small mark on the hearts of people I love before my time is up. Like Schmendrick, poor human wizard that he is, I want to be known and understood for my best intentions, even if even I don’t always know what those are.

It’s always fascinating to me to find a book that’s so well-suited to a young audience – fast-paced, straightforward story-telling, understandable language – but which resonates so deeply with a more mature one. I have no doubt I would have loved this book as a child or teenager, but I don’t know if I would have appreciated the subtly of the Beagle’s writing. It’s so lovely, and sad. I keep finding myself sighing and saying, “Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like to grow older. How does he know? How does he know?!” Quests are supposed to change us, and in this book, I have no doubt that by the end, the evolution will have occurred.

The straightforward nature of such quests, however, in a great book, is turned on its head. I still  remember finishing The Magician King  and experiecning the rising dread of a quest thwarted:

“This isn’t how it ends!” Quentin said. “I am the hero of this goddamned story, Ember! Remember? And the hero gets the reward!”

“No, Quentin,” the ram said. “The hero pays the price.” (pg 396, The Magician King)

(Damn it, Grossman – that still hurts. Please finish writing the next installment of soul-crushing delight soon.) Maybe The Last Unicorn will have a cheerier ending. Maybe it will be a straightforward “happily ever after,” but I have my doubts. Beagle seems too tapped into the reality of our flawed existence for a cut-and-dry resolution. That isn’t how the real world works, and it isn’t the most satisfying ending to most books either.

Sure, it can be great to know a character has vanquished every demon and reaped righteous rewards, but that may be difficult to relate to as a reader. Off the page, we know that the victory of one week may not matter the next, and more than anything, books serve as a reminder that the world is not only what we know from our own experiences. It’s tangled, and messy, and often brutal. It requires of us great sacrifice, and a willingness to love what might eventually be lost.

The world can be a hard place, and the quests we are asked to complete don’t always seem like the stories we have read. This is because we tend to remember endings above all else. We like to think of every obstacle overcome without bothering to recall how it came to be. We forget that the story is not just the final chapter but everything that came before it. It is the long, lonely nights in unfamiliar forests. It’s the roads that seem to stretch endlessly before us under a scorching sun. It is the friends we have cut with sharp, careless tongues, the friends who have left us so that we may find our better selves again. It is the old crone we must show kindness to, and the kindness we beg from strangers in return. The quest is the most special hard thing we’re ever given – it’s the rock we rub our lives against to shape them into what we want to be.