Wednesday, January 04, 2012

from the book pile, 2011: Mary Karr, Julia Cameron, Susan Wise Bauer, Image Journal, No. 70

I've been working my way through the tower of books teetering off the antique writing desk that serves as my nightstand.  Working my way through reading and working my way through the thoughts and learnings each title provokes.

When I first started this blog in 2006 one of my goals was to nurture a forum that kept me accountable for the cultural goods I consume.  Of course, I didn't really know then to articulate the goal in those terms.  The truth dawns gradually: as in in worship so as in culture -- I did not make it, but it is making me.

Having also gotten quite clear with the truth that I will never be a professional book reviewer, I've let myself off the hook and changed up the way I document my reading.

Every new year, I consider making a number goal for books read in the coming twelve months.  It's never a good idea; rather takes away the enjoyment of arriving at December 31 and tallying up titles from the previous year.  Feels like an accomplishment no matter the number!  

  Hope you enjoy!


Author:  Mary Karr

Genre: memoir, autobiography

Published: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009

General Impression:  
My friend Micha generously loaned me her (signed!) copy of Mary Karr's newest memoir.  My interest was piqued after hearing Micha's own memories of her MFA grad school experience at Syracuse University.  

Mary Karr represents plainly the kind of person I am most afraid to know.  She is blunt. She is sometimes crass.  She is unsentimental.  She is irreverent.  She sounds like she could make me run to the girls room crying and not care.  She knows a wide range of obscenities I'm not savvy enough to even imagine.  She knows a depth of rescue I've never experienced.

She's also a damn good writer.  

And while this seemed an odd selection for the quiet candle-lit evenings of Advent, I found night after night that the raw longing for healing, wholeness and peace her words expose were, in fact, perfect reminders for the longing in us all.  I'm glad for the re-gained shalom Mary Karr seems to find before the final paragraph of the book and pray that it increases beyond her experience to the family, friends and readers around her.

One more thought:  during Christmas vacation a friend and I were talking about the relational ethics memoirists encounter in their work.  He was sharing an example of an author he knew who chose to work out her own demons in her published memoir, seemingly at the expense of working out the grievances that had accrued between herself and her loved ones.  We both shook our heads in disappointment over the ongoing grief her action will likely nurture.

During that conversation I tried to compare what I was reading in Ms. Karr's book. She tells personal stories that not only expose her raw vulnerability, but also that of many others in her life (her parents, siblings, husband, son, fellow support group addicts and institutionalized roommates).  In this case, though, the author made me feel very comfortable throughout each chapter that she had done due diligence to not only include the various perspectives of the people in her life but also their own responses to her writing.  She shares stories of her own mother reading the rough draft, her son's requests for stories to be brought into the light of print, her [ex] husband's decline to alter or add to her writings.  She also goes beyond the somewhat obsequious self-deprecation we've come to expect in the modern memoir and displayed a gracious humility that appeared even more starkly when compared to the harshness of her everyday language.  In my opinion, Lit uses a model voice for other autobiographers to mimic.

An excerpt from chapter 18, "Ivy Beleaguered":

"The image of my blond three years' son this morning, sobbing and holding out his arms to me while Warren strapped him into the child seat, is a hot stove I can't stop touching.

Warren drops him off at daycare now for reasons that are complex.

Sure, I need to get in early to copy course materials illicitly -- an infraction the secretary, who comes in at nine --warned adjunct teachers about back in the August training session, copies being too costly for the sniveling, no-hope-of-tenure human I am.

Also, on the snowy road here some mornings, I stop to puke out the car door, releasing into a snow bank an acidic coffee bile that stays on my teeth despite brushing vigourously enough to bloody my gums, leaving a bile taste no mint can mask. At the daycare center, mommy-vomiting is frowned on.
But even if I didn't want to vomit before  I got to the daycare center --which resembles a modest colonial parson's house like in The Scarlet Letter -- the perky bustle of the place would incline me in a vomitous direction.

The last time I did the morning dropoff was right after Christmas break. The director had waved me into her office, walls tacked with the bespattered finger paintings of Harvard's budding geniuses. I'd sat on a stiff chair while she told me Dev was so anxious he couldn't fall asleep at naptime.

Is everything okay at home? she asked. She had front teeth like fence pickets, and the reflection on her octagonal wire-rims was my puffy face.

Of course everything was great. I was great and my husband was great. Happiness was the currency we paid to get our kid accepted here.

So I failed to tell her that my husband and I had barely spoken that week, and sometimes, before I made dinner, I considered dousing the oven's pilot light and sticking my head in. Or that -- driving to my in-laws' for Christmas dinner -- I'd risen at four, ostensibly to bake pies, but actually to drive around the local reservoir, finishing a six-pack of beer while listening to Argentine tangos."


Author:  Julia Cameron

Genre: nonfiction

Published: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam, 1998

General Impression:  
On a scale of 1-10, I give this book a "meh".  I suspect it's more me than the the book because it's written well, easily accessible for any one no matter their individual writing experience.  It's just that even though I read three-quarters of the book before shutting it for good I felt like I never really got too far with it.  

You could argue that it is intended to work for only those who take the writer prompts at the end of each chapter and do something beside yawn and turn off the nightstand lightswitch.  You'd probably be right.  

My best two take-aways?
1.  Just write.  Don't get hung up on yourself (or anyone else, for that matter) and just write.
2.  Start each day with "morning pages" as a sort of priming the pump without any expectation or judgement on the actual words that come out of the pen.  


Author:  Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise

Genre: nonfiction

Published: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009

General Impression:  
I read this sort of because I had to.  When we moved to Austin in the middle of August and landed here one week before the public school year began, we promised our kids that we'd keep every educational option on the table for them (for this year) in order for them to not just survive the move but to also find a way to thrive because of the move.

By October, our eighth-grader was home and by mid-November her sophomore sister joined her.  I'd perused The Well-Trained Mind out of curiosity a few years back and it was the first place I looked when I found myself suddenly a homeschooling mom.

To be fair, I didn't read every word in this book in 2011.  I did read every word that had to do with training an eighth-grader and a tenth-grader and several other words that caught my fancy along the way.  And while I'm not very widely read on the subject of teaching children at home, I'd have to guess that when it comes to practical how-to resource guides this book is one of the best out there.  From detailed resource information to detailed guidelines for structuring the days of each week in the life of a homeschooled student, I'd be lost without the information included here.

I'd also recommend this book for parents with kids in a more traditional school environment, wanting to supplement their education.  If nothing else, you could always use the suggested reading guides for each grade level to bribe your kids to read the way we did a few summers back!

An excerpt from a suggested reading list for 8th grade and for 10th grade:

8th grade, top 3 suggested titles in Fiction: 
1. Robert Louis Steven, Kidnapped or Treasure Island
2.  Edward E. Hale, "The Man without a Country"
3.  Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

in Poetry:
1.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Song of Hiawatha"
2.  Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken" and other poems
3.  E.E. Cummings, collected poems

in Drama:
1.  Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
2.  George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
3.  Arthur Miller, The Crucible

10th grade, "Great Books" titles:
1.  Augustine, Confessions
2.  Augustine, City of God, Book 8
3.  Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
4.  Koran (selections)
5.  Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People
6.  Beowulf
7.  Mabinogion
8.  Anselm, Cur Deus Homo
9.  Robert Goodwin, ed., Aquinas: Selected Writings
10. Dante, The Inferno
11. Everyman
12. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
13. Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
14. Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe
15. Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur (selections)
16. Erasmus, Education of a Christian Prince (selections)
17. Machiavelli, The Prince
18. Thomas More, Utopia
19. Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians
20. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (selections)
21. Christopher Marlowe, Faustus
22. Teresa of Avila, The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
23.Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene
24.William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
25.William Shakespeare, Hamlet
26.William Shakespeare, any other plays


12Image Journal, No. 70 (fall 2011)
Author: Edited by Gregory Wolfe
Genre: anthology creative work
Published: Center for Reglious Humanism, Seattle Pacific University

General Impression: I'm not sure if it's cheating to include a journal in my reading list for the year?  Anyone?  I figure it's 118 pages of short story, poetry, articles and reviews and that should count for something.

The contributors in this issue include  Rubén Degollado, Alison Pelegrin, Martha Serpas, Brad Davis, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, Daniel A. Siedell, Michael McGregor, Steven D. Greydanus and others.  The artwork this issue features artist Enrique Martinez Celaya

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Orchard, 2009

Favorite Poem In This Issue: "Charisma" by Alison Pelegrin


They say statues wept
when she passed -- gypsy girl
in the choir who spoke
in tongues. I thought she
was faking, but prayed,
just in case, that I would
never babble, or, during the peace,
slump over and writhe. I hid
behind my knotted hair
to plot her expose'. Her
and her clan of women, smoke
and mirror Christians
hogging the potluck roast,
flocking to the best cuts
in a cloud of scarves
and perfume. Mother looked
back at me, me with my 
tell-it-like-it-is tongue,
my sundress in haste
on backwards, and I knew 
she wished for an afflicted girl
sick enough to sass in a holy fire,
one who wept not tears but oil,
or blood. Charisma, same page
as Charlemagne in the dictionary
a giant with brown ringlets
handling the church like a dollhouse
in his hands. Like her -- imposter,
and but for me the congregation  rapt --
white robes, white pure, white gloves,
white sandals on her feet as if
that were veil enough
to make me believe her whole
body were made of light.

To subscribe to the Image Journal, click here.
To enjoy their excellent blog, Good Letters,  click here.

To find the rest of my 2011 reads, click here.

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