Book ‘Em: And Baby Makes Two.

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

The irony of the title is that this is not a how-to book on raising children but a funny, brutally honest memoir. At around the same time that Dan Quayle was demonstrating his strength as a leader by taking on Murphy Brown Anne Lamott decided to become a single mother, a decision aided in part by the father’s refusal to provide any support, even going so far as to sign court documents denying he was the father. Fortunately for Lamott, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who found salvation in the Christian faith, she had a village of friends, family, and fellow church members to help her raise her son Sam. Not that it was easy. Lamott says at one point, “I wonder if it’s normal for a mother to adore her baby so desperately and at the same time to think about choking him or throwing him down the stairs.” She’s blunt about how tired, frustrated, angry, and sad she is, and yet these dark thoughts are more than outnumbered by comments about how surprised she is to be so completely in love with her son. No matter how awful her thoughts she never regrets having Sam. I’m not an expert on parenting, but if Lamott’s experience is any indication no one really is.

The author of several novels, including Crooked Little Heart (Pantheon Books, 1997), Rosie (Viking Press, 1983), as well as another memoir, Hard Laughter, and the excellent book for writers, Bird By Bird, Lamott’s dramatic swings back and forth are both understandable, perhaps even universal among parents, and reassuring to future and present parents that it’s okay to be human.

Also buoying her at the same time was the fact that one of her novels had just been published shortly after Sam’s birth, an experience which was minor compared to motherhood, but which she was thrilled to share with her son. The confluence of these events gives the book one of its funniest moments:

 

I held Sam up to the window of the Book Depot so he could study the jacket of my book, and I said, “That’s my book, honey, I write,” and he looked at me with a mildly patronizing expression. You could just tell he was thinking, “Sure you do.”

What makes the book, though, are Lamott’s intense expressions of love and faith, such as when she explains her choice of the name Samuel:

It means “God has heard”, like God heard me, heard my heart, and gave me the one thing that’s ever worked in my life, someone to love.


Shakespeare Who?

I admit it: I’m an unashamed Doctor Who fan, a Whovian, and have been since I was sixteen. So I’m more than a little excited that Doctor Who is coming together with one of my other great passions, literature. Tonight on the SciFi Channel the Doctor will meet none other than William Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Code. Times are 9:00PM Eastern Daylight Time, 8:00PM Central Daylight Time.

For a British science fiction show about a traveller through time and space Doctor Who has had surprisingly few literary cameos. In the original (or “classic” series) the sixth Doctor (played by Colin Baker) met H.G. Wells (played by David Chandler) in the story Timelash. Most of the Doctor’s encounters with great literary figures, as well as some historical figures, have been referred to in stories he’s told to his companions or passing jokes. More recently in the new series the Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston) met Charles Dickens (played by Simon Callow), resulting in this hilarious exchange:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/7KyHddIopeY" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

While we can say with pretty strong certainty that Charles Dickens wrote the works of Charles Dickens, Shakespeare is much more controversial, not least because of Edward de Vere or even Christopher Marlowe. Still, check out the trailer for tonight’s episode–or, better yet, check out the episode.

And if you’re a real Doctor Who fan, you’re bound to appreciate this compilation by Youtube user Calapine, with music by Carbon Leaf:

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Hooked On Books.

The organization First Book, a non-profit whose mission is to give low-income children a chance to read and own their first books, is asking, What Book Got You Hooked? Go to the web site and tell them your first and favorite book–the book that got you hooked on reading. Check out the testimonials from such diverse people as Michael Chabon, actress Joan Allen, Kathleen Herles (voice of Dora The Explorer) and Laura Numeroff, author of the brilliant children’s book If You Give A Mouse A Cookie.

It’s no accident that many of the testimonials come from writers. Give a child a book and you inspire him or her to want to write books. In low-income neighborhoods the ratio of age-appropriate books is one for every three-hundred children.

Submit your book and vote for the state you want to receive 50,000 new books. You can submit one book every 24 hours until July 31st.


Book ‘Em: An Average Summer Night

“And like a director, I would call for lights to come on in every house in town, and for every person who had ever lived there to step outside and take a long breath on this average summer night.”

So ends Billy Goats, the first story in Jill McCorkle’s collection Creatures of Habit (Algonquin Books, 2001). Probably best known for novels like The Cheer Leader (Algonquin Books, 1984) and Tending To Virginia (Algonquin Books, 1987), Jill McCorkle’s short stories still shouldn’t be overlooked. This particular collection (she’s written two others: Final Vinyl Days (Algonquin Books, 1998) and Crash Diet (Algonquin Books, 1992)) brings together twelve stories, each one with an animal theme. And yet the theme is often subtle. There are, for instance, no snakes in the story Snakes, no toads in the story Toads, and only one monkey in the story Monkeys.

McCorkle’s stories are like hand-thrown pottery. If you’ve ever watched a master potter at work you know it looks so easy–until you get your own hands on a lump of raw clay. Her materials are simple but sturdy: a drunk couple try to drive out an annoying neighbor by talking about old sitcoms, neighborhood children steal fruit from the garden of a woman who happily gives it away, a man suffering from dementia shows up at his ex-wife’s house, unaware that they’ve been divorced for years and that he remarried. McCorkle always hits the right balance: never too much detail, never too little. They’re perfect reading for an average summer night.


Little Bear.

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere and look due North you’ll see a distinctive constellation known, variously, as The Little Dipper, The Little Bear, or, to the Romans, Ursa Minor. At the end of the little bear’s unusually long tail (in mythology said to have been lengthened by the bear’s spinning around the pole), or the end of the dipper’s handle, is Polaris (Alpha Ursae Minoris), the Pole Star or North Star. Polaris has helped sailors and other travelers find their way for millenia. In fact it was the Phoenecians who used this star for navigation before the Greeks. The philosopher Thales suggested it to the Greeks, and, determining it to be closer to the pole, they abandoned Ursa Major, The Big Dipper, which you can see a few degrees to the West, in favor of Ursa Minor.

According to Ovid, a nymph named Callisto attracted the attention of Jupiter, who got to her by taking the form of Artemis. When she became pregnant Artemis was outraged and turned Callisto into a bear. She gave birth to a son, Arcas, and both were placed in the heavens by Jupiter.

Step out tonight and say hello to the mother and son who help travelers find their way. And keep looking up.


An Unpatriotic Act.

As librarian Joan Airoldi explained in her article Case Study: A Grand Jury Subpoena in the PATRIOT Act Era: One Library’s Lesson, in the Winter 2006 issue of Library Administration & Management, the FBI came to the Deming [Washington] Library in June 2004 and asked that the library hand over the names of all persons who had checked out the book Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, written by Yossef Bodansky. After asking the reason, they were told the FBI had been alerted to a suspicious handwritten note in the the margin of one page. The library’s staff referred the matter to the local district attorney who researched the matter and ultimately declined to hand over the information to the FBI. Among other things, the request infringed upon Constitutionally protected rights. The FBI also could not demonstrate that there was any connection between the information and the subject of grand jury proceedings.

In researching the matter the district attorney found that the handwritten note was in fact a quote from bin Laden, a statement made after the book had been published. The fact that the FBI did not know this made the agency look stupid, and, more than preventing crime, it’s the avoidance of looking stupid that seems to be behind the PATRIOT Act’s provision allowing law enforcement officials to place a gag order on libraries. Had they used the gag order in this case the FBI could have prevented the librarians from referring the request to their district attorney, or from even discussing it. Very few people would know that FBI agents were so stupid they couldn’t recognize a bin Laden quote, and so jumpy they were prepared to waste time and resources questioning library patrons rather than actually investigating or preventing crimes. Let me be blunt: law enforcement officials have no need for library records. In criminal investigations searching through library records is more of a waste of time than it is an effective aid to locating criminals, and, in this specific case, the FBI was not trying to prosecute a crime; they were on a fishing expedition. If the FBI didn’t already look incredibly stupid in this case, they also missed a critical point: the person who wrote in the book didn’t necessarily check it out. Libraries aren’t bookstores. You can go to a library, pull a book from the shelf, read it, and then leave without it. The person who wrote in the book didn’t need to be a resident of Deming, or of the state of Washington, or even of the United States.

As Joan Airoldi explains, “The library did not know the FBI’s reasoning when its agent asked for our records; we simply knew that the reason we were given verbally (the fact of the book with the writing in it) did not persuade us that the danger was so great that it justified violating our patron’s privacy. That’s why we went to court to ask a judge to void the FBI’s subpoena. The law provides for a judge to hear the reasoning of both sides, and then decide whether the danger is serious and imminent enough that it justifies disclosing records that would otherwise be private.”

In spite of the fact that the librarians were right to challenge the subpoena they’ve been accused of treason, and of supporting terrorism. If we believe the idiotic claim that terrorists “hate freedom” (as if terrorists were a unified group with a single philosophy), though, it was the librarians, not the FBI, who were defending freedom. As the library board said in a 2003 resolution protesting the PATRIOT Act, “privacy is essential to free speech, free thought and free association inherent in library use.” Creating fear in people that they will be prosecuted for what they read has a chilling effect on the freedom to think, and without freedom to think all other rights cease to exist.

This may seem like old news, but the status of the law has not changed. On this day, and, in fact, on any day, we should consider this: our rights and freedoms are even more threatened by the actions of irresponsible members of our government as they are by any outside group because people within our government claim, while working hard to keep the specifics secret, to be working on our behalf. Previous administrations have protected the country within the limits set by the Constitution. The only thing that changed on September 11th, 2001, is that a group of greedy, self-serving individuals exploited a tragedy and we, the American people, along with the rest of the world, allowed them to do it. It’s both ironic and troubling that the same people who claim to want to defend the United States and other nations from al Qaida and the Taliban want to establish a theocracy of their own, one very similar to the regime that existed recently in Afghanistan where women and religious minorities are, at best, second-class citizens, if they’re citizens at all. In both motive and action there is very little difference between Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush. They claim to be on opposite sides of the same issue, but, like all extremes, they are closer than either one will admit. Both want to force the world to serve their interests, both will use any means necessary, and neither will take full responsibility for their actions, preferring instead to let others carry out their orders. The words written in the book were, “If the things I’m doing is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God.” George Bush drew a similar line in the sand when he said, more grammatically but less eloquently, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

The PATRIOT Act should never have been passed. Defenders of the PATRIOT Act cry “terrorism!” any time it’s challenged, but in reality they would like to see rights and freedoms protected the Constitution put beyond the reach of the citizens. They would like to see the very principles that define us as a nation abandoned since the Constitutional freedom of speech, freedom to challenge your accusers in a court of law, and the ban on cruel and unusual punishment are roadblocks to their pursuit of absolute power. Defenders of the PATRIOT Act are opposed to democracy and freedom. They would like to make even reading the Constitution a crime. After all, you can’t ask that your rights be upheld if you don’t know what your rights are.


Summer Reading: The Results Are In!

I’d like to thank everyone who submitted their favorite summer reads. The selections were as interesting as they were diverse, and I feel I learned a lot about the community of readers out there (as well as getting some great ideas for summer reading of my own). Here are the books some Just Write readers are reading this summer:

Angel Craddock said, “After Mr. Vonnegut’s passing, I was considering re-reading some of his works but hadn’t decided which one. Then, the host of the next meeting of my bookclub sent out an e-mail that we are to read Slaughterhouse 5 for our monthly gathering. Is that a sign?”There were also a couple of anonymous submissions:

 

 

 

 

 

And finally, reader John Pearce, who wins the award for the longest review, said, “I had to fight the urge to nominate my favorite summer read – Man Utd Season in Review because I was passed a book recently and told, John (because that is my name), ‘you should read this book, this is a book that should be read by you’. So I said, eh, why not. So while Venus, my server at Cafe Soltice, poured me another double mocha, I folded my lap top down and began to read Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Good stuff. I had a good laugh and had several thought provoking moments about what the topic of Christian Spirituality, written from a nonreligious point of view. Miller’s writing is fun, he is an excellent story teller, and made me want to drive by Reed College sometime to see if half the stuff he said went on there was true. I think my personal favorite quote (there are many) from here is that you can not defend Christianity because it means ten different things to ten different people, and most of the time it is negative and about a religious part of the faith. Instead he wants to defend Jesus and his relationship to Him. This guy wonderfully takes the reader by the hand through this post modern world and asks the question ‘Is Jesus relevant today, and what is Christian Spirituality?’. Of course I’m biased because it is mainly set here in the North West, but it is enthralling. I believe that the hurtful things that are said by believers and non-believers rings very close to home for many readers, and Millers account of how he and his friends reacted to these situations are funny, insightful, inspired and thought provoking.”


Gitmo Poetry.

When I first heard about a collection of poems written by prisoners and former prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, it was described to me as “the poetry of al Qaeda”, by someone who was afraid the poems would be used to pass messages through a terrorist network. I don’t claim to be an expert on politics (I leave the politics to smarter people) but the description struck me as supreme ignorance. While some extremely dangerous people may be imprisoned in Gitmo, fewer than half of the prisoners there have been charged with any crime. And, though I may be naive, I can’t believe twenty-two poems by seventeen detainees and former detainees are a threat to national security. If they are, then there is some comfort in knowing poetry has such power. In fact the release of the collection has been reported in, among other places, The Wall Street Journal, which isn’t known for its poetry coverage.

The so-called war on terrorism is not a new phenomenon. Terrorism is not a new tactic, not even for the United States, where the beginnings of revolution must have been regarded by the British crown as acts of terrorism. Terrorism didn’t begin with Islam, and it won’t end when the last U.S. soldier is brought home. I’m not condoning terrorism or trying to justify the senseless violence that is both the act and often the by-product of terrorism. Instead I think we need to understand our own government’s policies better, and we need to understand the people of other countries better. There is a reason the Guantanamo Bay facility is an embarrassment to a country that should be an example to the rest of the world.

We also mustn’t forget that the Middle East is literally, the cradle of civilization, and has a long tradition of literature which includes such familiar classics as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and the Tales of the Arabian Nights, which were, at one time, as popular and controversial as Harry Potter is today. There is also a long and thriving literary tradition, including the work of 1988 Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, who passed away almost a year ago and whose last novel, Karnak Cafe, has just been published in English translation. For a broad overview there are editor James Kritzeck’s Anthology of Islamic literature, from the rise of Islam to modern times (Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1964) and Modern Islamic literature: from 1800 to the present (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970). And there is also the still-thriving tradition of poetry. In addition to the new collection there are such collections as Modern Arabic Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1987), edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi and An anthology of modern Arabic poetry (University of California Press, 1974), edited and translated by Mounah A. Khouri and Hamid Algar. What’s striking about reading these collections is that, in the poetry of East and West, there are fewer differences than similarities. We worry about the same things, we love the same way. We are the same people.

Of course there is more to any culture than its literature, and I can’t think of the Middle East without thinking of Saudi Aramco World Magazine, which, in each bimonthly issue, reveals a world that is historically, scientifically, economically, and culturally more complex, more developed, more fascinating, and more beautiful than the glimpses we get in movies or the horrors we see in the news channels. We have to be informed, to understand the Middle East to stop repeating the mistakes of the past. Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky perhaps said this best in his review of the book when he said, “They deserve, above all, not admiration or belief or sympathy–but attention. Attention to them is urgent for us.”

He may only have been speaking of this small collection of poems, but he could just as easily have been speaking about all the countries of the Middle East, and beyond.


Palaeolithic Genius.

The elders would test him
beyond doubt & blood. Mica
lit the false skies where
stalactite dripped perfection
into granite. He fingered
icons sunlight & anatase
never touched.

–Yusef Komunyakaa, “Memory Cave”mammoth.jpg

Scientists at the University of Tubingen are excited about the recent discovery of a tiny (less than two inches) mammoth figurine found in Southwestern Germany. After 35,000 years it, and four other figurines carved out of mammoth ivory, are amazingly still intact. While scientists are excited to learn that there were not only people but artists in the region, this discovery, like the cave paintings in Cantabria, Lascaux, and other regions, always raises the same question in my mind: why? Our earliest ancestors did not have it easy. The survival of not just individual tribes but our species was often threatened, and yet the need to devote time and energy and resources to non-utilitarian objects–in a word, art–seems to be universal. Many cave paintings were made deep in the caves, in dangerous, cramped, uncomfortable places. Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel on his back had it easy compared to what cave painters endured. And drawing conclusions now is almost as risky as making art was in those days. As Stephen J. Gould explains in an essay titled “Up Against A Wall”, collected in his book Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams And The Diet Of Worms, the assumption made by paleoanthropologists and art historians Abb Henri Breuil and Andr Leroi-Gourhan that more complex paleolithic art must, by necessity, be younger while simpler designs must be older, was not only proven wrong but turned on its head by radiocarbon dating: most of the simpler designs were actually newer. And that would seem to be a fairly safe assumption. Attempts to understand what our ancestors, regardless of how biologically close they are to us, were thinking, are going to consist of little more than thin and dangerous speculations.

A large part of the problem, I think, is that we take art for granted. It’s something you hang on the wall in museums, or over your couch. For our ancestors, I think it’s safe to say, art was a matter of life and death. We may not realize it, but perhaps that’s still true. Perhaps there’s a reason art is still being produced today, and why it’s still debated, discussed, attacked, and praised in small, tribal circles. Oscard Wilde said, “All art is quite useless.” Tens of thousands of years before he was born his own ancestors proved him wrong.


Book ‘Em: Isn’t It Romantic?

I don’t read romance novels, but when an issue of Romance Sells, which says, “Published Quarterly for Booksellers and Librarians” on its front cover, came across my desk, I couldn’t help taking a few minutes to check it out. At a time when most other print genres seem to be either stagnating or dying, the romance genre is thriving. And maybe it could teach all those stuffy literary types a thing or two.

It might not have anything to do with the success of romance novels, but romance publishers obviously value libraries and librarians. The first full article, on Page 3, is “Choice Reads” by Michele Drovdahl, 2006 RWA [Romance Writers of America] Librarian of The Year.

Did I read that right? The Romance Writers of America association picks a librarian of the year? The magazine is also sponsoring a “Libraries Love Romance” contest, and the Summer 2007 issue also profiles Linda Keller, who is Community Relations Training Manager for Barnes & Noble, their 2007 Steffie Walker Bookseller of the Year, and Valerie Luna, a librarian in the Spotswood (New Jersey) Public Library, their 2007 Librarian of the Year.

Beyond this it’s little more than a catalog, but the diversity of books classified as “romance” is surprising. Sub-dividing the genre into Anthology, Contemporary Series, Contemporary Single-Title, Historical, Inspirational, Paranormal, Romantic Suspense, Women’s Fiction, and Young Adult releases, it’s clear romance ain’t just about bodice-ripping.

Granted there is still a pretty substantial amount of that. Fabio may have moved on, but there are ample replacements. Shirtless men grace the covers of titles in every section, but there’s a fair amount of female skin on display too. Could romance be a guy’s genre too? Most guys might not admit it, but, hey, why not? And while it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover, there are a fair number with tasteful, even artfully done covers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In all the creative writing classes I’ve ever taken romance fiction is always sneered at. It’s the ultimate sell-out. And yet I have to appreciate the Romance Writers of America for their support of libraries and librarians, and for promoting the written word. Every genre has its greats and its not-so-greats, and some of the greatest works in literature are romances. Many of Shakespeare’s comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing or The Comedy of Errors are extremely well-written romances, and, while this fact is often overlooked, Homer’s Odyssey is, at heart, a love story (even though Odysseus leaves a few broken hearts in his wake). Why look down on romance? Every age has its critics who complain that nothing good’s being done, and yet generations to come always find diamonds in the rough. And, bad or good, as the magazine’s title says, romance sells.