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Pattern Books

26 Apr Tote bag, sharpies on canvas, Alexandra Hanson-Harding
Tote bag, sharpies on canvas, Alexandra Hanson-Harding

Tote bag, sharpies on canvas, Alexandra Hanson-Harding

Yesterday when I was at my book group, my friend Monica asked me, “Are you still looking at pattern books?”

That’s because I am an eternal drawer and doodler and writer (and she was catching me doodling under the table), and last year, I was doing a lot of my doodling modeled on pictures from pattern books.   I have incredibly restless, fidgety hands, and I have a hard time listening to a conversation if I am not taking notes, doodling, drawing, fiddling with yarn, or twisting something with my fingers. Thus has it always been. As you can see from the name of my blog, 135 journals, I have been keeping journals for some time. I have far more than 135 journals. (And yes, I do look back at them, and I still have all of them, and I am very happy I started the habit when I was 14 and I do write pretty much every day).

A few years ago, I became interested—or rather, re-interested—in art. Visual art has always been an interest of mine. It was my first love, before words came and stole me away. In recent years, especially since I have become sick, art has seemed to open different pathways than words. I feel as if there is a great roaring in my head of things I need to communicate. I have things I need to express, and things I need to be understood. These are two different things. Art has been utterly compelling as a force to help me to both.

On my path to rediscovering my own language in art, I started devouring art books, especially books on different kinds of patterns. There was something about patterns that particularly compelled me.

Studying these art books helped me. Why not be inspired by the gifts and wisdom of others? It gave me an expanded framework for thinking both about patterns and about symbols. This allowed me both to find and to create symbols that meant something to me. It showed me how repeating patterns can give emphasis and importance to certain areas of a piece. That designs aren’t just random. They serve a purpose. There’s a reason why people love patterns and have always found them comforting and important.

More importantly, I know why I love creating patterns. But now, I don’t look at pattern books for inspiration when I draw. I just breathe, put pen to paper, and let go. I don’t know what will come out, or, if it doesn’t, if I can fix it. But that’s okay. there’s a lot of paper in the world. And the patterns will still keep emerging, from the pattern book that is unfurling inside of me.

 

135 Journals Book Review: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

30 Dec
Vista overlooking the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts from the New York State border at sunset

Vista overlooking the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts from the New York State border at sunset (via Wikimedia Commons).

What makes a book work? Plot twists? Action? Unsolved mysteries? Yes. . . but sometimes a book has a strange power that goes far beyond a heart-pounding plot. In The Red Garden, much of what made it irresistible has to do not so much with a dramatic subject but with the author’s masterful voice. This beautiful book is about the life of a western Massachusetts town called Blackwell, from its beginnings in the 1690s until modern times. It is told in a series of interlocking stories that are about characters in various generations from that founding time forward. In each story, there are connections to be made to previous generations, giving the reader a feeling of the cyclical nature of life.

I enjoyed hunting for the connections, and for the ways that history touched on the characters who were the subjects of the stories. But to me, that was not the best part of the book. What really worked for me is the masterful skill of Alice Hoffman’s writing. The writing was deceptively simple. It made the reader forget the complexity of creating multiple sets of characters and their connections to each other. It made the reader forget that although these stories were all set in the same place, each protagonist quickly became individual and alive, not just props in a larger plotline. The book has a touch of magic realism–for example, in the curious nature of one of the founder’s relationship with a bear–but because of Hoffman’s beautiful storytelling voice, those moments of mystery seem as real and possible as any others. To me, the book was entire in itself, enjoyable on its own considerable merits. Yet it also reminded me that it is possible to craft a book about something as simple as a little town in a forgotten part of the world and convey the idea that no town and no person is ordinary—that we are all full of mysteries and contradictions and possibilities.

Writing Prompt: Is there an author whose voice you particular love? Who is it and what do you love about his or her voice?

135 Journals Interview: Meet Kid/YA Author Timothy J. Bradley!

4 Nov
Timothy J. Bradley

Timothy J. Bradley uses illustrating as a way to get a feeling for the books he writes.

Recently, I reviewed a quirky and entertaining book called Infestation. (check out: https://135journals.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/135-journals-ya-and-kid-book-club-infestation-by-timothy-j-bradley/) This book made me realize just how much I didn’t know about huge mutant ants–a shameful knowledge gap, I know! Writing the review gave me the opportunity to communicate with Infestation’s author, and he kindly agreed to answer some questions about how he writes (and illustrates) and what inspires him. Read the interview below to learn more.

Infestation cover

Infestation (cover design by someone else) is about Andy, a boy who is sent to a very strange reform school with an outsized insect problem.

  1. It seems in the book as if each of the main characters has a weakness that turns into a strength. For example, the main character’s roommate’s love of blowing things up comes in handy. Is that true of all the characters? Will it show up in future books?

Yes, I tried to give each of the characters some kind of talent or interest that ended up being a benefit to the group of boys in some way. I think that people in real life are like that—we all have hobbies or interests, and it’s fun when we get a chance to put that part of our personalities to good use. In Pyro’s case, it’s probably the only time in his life that blowing things up could serve a constructive purpose! I definitely would want those character attributes showing up in future installments, and more as we find out more about them all. Right at this point in time, INFESTATION is a stand-alone adventure, although I certainly left the door open to possible future books (I’ve thought a lot about what would happen in those, and they’d be a blast to write and draw). INFESTATION has been nominated for the 2014-2015 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award (I’m pretty sure it’s the only book with giant, mutant ants), which might spark some interest with a publisher.

  1. How did you get the idea for Infestation?

I was a big fan of monster movies when I was a kid, especially the “giant bug” films, which were made in the 1950s and 60s. When I started writing fiction, I thought it might be fun to write a story that was an updated version of one of those 1950s “creature features”. One thing I knew I had to do is to come up with a logical method for actually making a bug really huge—in real life, bugs can’t grow beyond a certain size because their muscles wouldn’t be able to move their limbs. Muscles attached to an exoskeleton aren’t as effective as muscles attached to an internal skeleton (like we have). Once I thought of a plausible way to accomplish that, the rest of the story just fell into place.

  1. How long does it take you to write a book, and how do you do it? Do you have a special place where you work or a special schedule?

Typically, what I’ve done is to let things percolate in my brain for a while before I actually sit down to start writing. I also spend a couple of weeks nailing down the plot and significant story events, sketching up lots of thumbnails of things from the story. Once I actually start writing, it might take 2-3 months to generate a first draft. Then I send it out to an editor, and usually do several rounds of rewriting and revising.

I have a studio at home that I use to write and draw, but I can be creative anywhere—it’s something I had to master when I worked as a freelance artist. I don’t have a set schedule—I’ve always been pretty disciplined about taking advantage of little bits of time here and there to write. I usually spend a lot of time during the day thinking about the part of the story I’m working on so that when I am able to sit down and write, I know pretty much what I want to accomplish.

Soldier Class ant illustration by Tim Bradley.

Soldier Class ant illustration by Tim Bradley.

  1. You said you liked horror movies from the 50s. Can you tell us more about that and what they were like? What interested you about them?

My favorites were the ones that at least attempted to have a thin layer of science attached to them, along with the explosions and destruction. I also really disliked if the “monster” was obviously just a guy in a rubber suit (like “The Thing From Another World”). I really liked any kind of dinosaurian-type monster (like the original “Godzilla” movie), or stop-motion animation creatures. But my all-time favorite monster movie is “THEM!”, which was about giant ants in the New Mexico desert, mutations from the original atom-bomb tests. The creatures in the movie were life-sized “robotic” ants that looked pretty good—remember that this is waaaaay before computer graphics had been invented. Not only were the creatures great, but the story was well-written and very compelling. So when I decided to do an updated version of a monster movie, I put in plenty of nods to that movie (the setting is one of them).

  1. Did you study bugs in high school or college? Were they a special interest for you? Are the facts about bugs in this fictional story accurate? If so, why did you think it was important to be factual in a fictional story? If they are accurate, what kind of research did you do? And was doing research fun or was it torture?

I’ve always been fascinated by bugs—they’re so different from us, yet, if you go far enough back in time, there is an ancestral creature that gave rise to both arthropods and us. I have always found that mind-blowing. Although I never studied insects in any formal way, I did do a lot of reading on my own, and I watched the bugs that lived out in my back yard when I was a kid.

The insect information in INFESTATION is accurate—I’ve always enjoyed stories where the adventure aspect is balanced with a helping of actual science information, sort of what Michael Crichton was so good at. I had written a nonfiction book called PALEO BUGS: Survival of the Creepiest, which contained information about prehistoric insects. The research I did for that book involved traveling to the London Natural History Museum, and having a paleontologist walk me through their amazing fossil insect collection. All that information helped when I was writing INFESTATION. I also read a bunch of book from my local library, and did some research on the internet. I actually find researching a book a tremendous amount of fun—I end up learning so much about a topic as I go.

Illustration of a running mutant ant by Tim Bradley.

Illustration of a running mutant ant by Tim Bradley.

  1. Did you also like to read when you were a kid? What are some of the books that influenced you most? What about as an adult?

I was a voracious reader when I was a kid, and I discovered many of my favorite authors at the little library in my town. The books that influenced me most were Rendezvous With Rama and 2001: a space odyssey, both by Arthur C. Clarke, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury’s collections of short stories. I still love to read as an adult—my favorite authors now would be Connie Willis and Robert Charles Wilson, as well as Michael Crichton.

  1. Do you have another job outside of writing, or is that your full-time job? How did you break into publishing? I know it’s a tough field!

I do actually have a full-time job—I am the in-house illustrator for Teacher Created Materials, an educational publisher in Huntington Beach, California. I write at night and on weekends, for the most part. Getting a book published is a challenge, for sure, but I think what I have in my favor is that I’m pretty disciplined about getting things done, I’m not afraid of putting my work out there (my years spent as a freelance artist made me used to doing that), and I’m pretty tenacious. I don’t give up on something easily, which is good, because it can take a long time to break in. I’ve been pretty fortunate so far, and it’s been a tremendous amount of fun. Breaking in was just a matter of continually knocking on doors—sending out queries, following up, all the nuts-and-bolts that have to be done in order to get a publisher to read your work.

  1. If you were to offer kids advice about how to become a writer, what would you say? What helped you?

I would say to go for it, but realize that writing, (or art, or music, or any creative endeavor) is a lifelong journey. It’s more important to enjoy the work itself (and it is a tremendous amount of work), and not worry about making it big as an author. It’s a very competitive field. Patience and perseverance are essential qualities for a writer. Also, I think it helps to read a lot, and try to figure out why a particular author’s work appeals to you.

  1. What are some other things that fascinate you?

Anything with a high weirdness factor. Zombie ants, parallel dimensions, black holes, prehistoric animals, other planets, future spacecraft, robots…yikes, there’s a lot of stuff. It’s all great source material for the type of stories I liked as a kid, and that I write now.

10. Why do you like writing for kids?

I think I enjoy writing for kids for 2 reasons. I think there’s a part of my brain that has never matured past the age of 8, and “8 year-old Tim” still gets excited about some crazy science story in the news. The second reason is that I remember vividly how awesome it was to discover a book that really reached me. I still enjoy finding a great book as an adult, but the sense of having these huge ideas that I had never thought about leap off the pages of a good sci fi novel was a very powerful force when I was younger.

I have the third book in my “Sci Hi” series, called TIME JUMP, coming out in November [ed. note: It just came out on November 1], and I have started working on a new middle-grade, illustrated, sci fi novel called EXPEDITION, which mixes my interest in natural history with my fascination with robots. I am very excited about it—I think it’s going to be a fun read (and I can’t wait to work on the illustrations!).

Covers that Tim designed for some upcoming books

Covers that Tim designed for some upcoming books.

(Oh,  I also forgot to ask where you live, at least in a general sense, and if you have kids, and if so, if they like reading your books). Are you familiar with the Southwestern setting because you have spent time there, for instance?)

I grew up on the East Coast, north of Boston, but I currently live in Southern California (I love the sunshine and palm trees!). I have a wife and a college-age son who is interested in a lot of the things I am, which is really fun). I use both my wife (who also writes for children) and my son as “sounding boards” for my ideas. My wife is great at spotting where I need to add description or character development, and my son has a nicely warped sense of humor, which can lead to some interesting points of view. I couldn’t have accomplished the work I’ve done so far without them.

Writing Prompt: Did you get any ideas from Tim to spur your creativity? What inspires YOU?

Art Journaling: She Presides Over Death

9 Sep
Art Journal  selection: She Presides Over Death.

This page is from one of my six or seven (or eight, can’t remember) art journals, from a free book I got called Packing Regulations by Stanley Sacharow in 1978.

As I have become more interested in the world of art journaling, I have started more journals. After all, once you get the paint out, you can only do one page at a time, then you have to wait until it dries and you’re just sittin’ there–it’s like watching one of those hideous T-ball games that seemed to go on forever when my children were young. So why not use the paint on six or seven journals while you’re already making a mess?

My problem is that I get really interested in the subject of the books I’m using. So one of the books I found for journaling was a nice hardcover called Packing Regulations. Laugh at me if you will, but Mr. Sacharow took his job seriously and he wrote about the world of packing regulations with care. If you really think about it, how food and other items are packaged is really quite an important subject. It’s a sort of unseen until it calls itself out to you, something hidden in plain sight. It’s easy to understand on an esthetic level. Don’t those little orange-shaped Orangina bottles make the drink taste even better? But it’s also important for reasons of safety (it’s not desirable to have harmful chemicals leaching into your food), and even just for mailing things in a way that is economical yet will minimize the chance of squishing your precious Oreos or bottles of wine. It’s also important that food items conform to certain standards.

Still, it was kind of sad to see this young lady working with rows of dead chickens on a line. Yes, please someone, inspect my meat. But for a moment, I look at those corpses and they look like babies to me, plump-tummied, headless babies. So the subject of the book inspired me to make me use the picture. Which is kind of ironic, because that means I used the contents of a book about packaging to discuss contents of a package which is in the book, which means . . .well, you get the idea, it’s a bit like the Land O’ Lake Butter girl, going off into infinity.

Writing Prompt: What is one kind of packaging of a product that you admire?

135 Journals YA and Kid Book Club: Infestation, by Timothy J. Bradley

20 Aug

 

800px-Meat_eater_ant_nest_swarming

These lovely meat eating ants are brought to you by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

And you thought YOU had problems.

 

Imagine you’re trapped in a boiling hot reform school with a small group of miscreant kids and one brilliant bug scientist—and that you’re surrounded by mutant ants who are bigger than you are. Hungry ants. This is what Andy Greenwood, an orphan with a penchant for running away from foster homes faces in Infestation, the first in a series of books by Timothy J. Bradley.

 

This summer I have read a large and varied number of young adult and kid books. Some are deep, some are fantastical, some are so irritating I wanted to throw them against the wall. Except that they were in my Kindle.

 

Back to Andy. Andy gets in a cafeteria food fight, and he, his roommate, Pyro (yes, he loves to blow up things), gentle Hector, Joey the Thug, and two other boys, Reilly and Shields, are sent to windowless, prisonlike, Block Six. But, just like so many things in life, sometimes bad luck turns into good luck. And good luck turns to bad luck. A giant earthquake rips through the land, freeing them (good) yet unleashing monstrous ant creatures, some of which are 8 or 9 feet tall (possibly not so good). They meet up with Dr. Gerry Medford, a young scientist who was at the school studying its then normal sized ant problem already. When the boys and Dr. Gerry meet up, they manage to hide away and brainstorm. One suspects that Timothy Bradley lovvvvvvves bugs, because he definitely did his research. Gerry explains that these mutant ants are unlike anything he has seen in nature and why. As I, too, have long been intrigued by bugs—as a little girl I would often spend long periods watching ants purposefully carrying crumbs into their small, sandy anthills—I too was fascinated by Gerry’s musings on why these ants were different. For example, I knew that ants could not be giant-sized—their exoskeletons only work on a small scale. But I wasn’t sure why. Gerry explains how muscles attach the insect’s limbs to its exoskeleton, and if the bug were human sized, the muscles wouldn’t have the strength to carry the exoskeleton’s weight. Andy also asks about how he learned so much about bugs (reading lots of books helps kids learn about a subject, shockingly). Gerry’s passion helps them come up with ideas to battle the ants, but each kid contributes. The same qualities that made each kid trouble turn out to be useful skills in this life-and-death situation.

Do they get away? What will they try—and what solutions work and don’t work? You’ll have to read this action-packed for yourself, which shouldn’t be TOO hard as it is written at a fifth grade level. But don’t be surprised if you accidentaly find yourself ingesting a bit of knowledge about the strange and magical world of ants as you follow Andy and his adventures. And watch out for book number 2!

 

Writing prompt: What is something you loved as a kid that turned out to be useful to you as an adult?

135 Journals Art Corner: My First MultiMedia Art Journal. Part 1

19 Aug

IMG_7871

Caption: Random page from Alexandra’s Art Journal, using collage, paint, yarn, glitter, and way too much Mod Podge. There is actually a picture of a girl with a caption that says, “It Stays With You,” and I hoped it would get across the idea of wonder. But it actually got across the idea of Shiny.

“Will your hands EVER be a normal color again?” Mr. Me asks as I use my fingers smush watercolor paint around the borders of a great classic formerly known as College Physics, circa 1957, that I found in a free book pile at a church in Montclair, NJ. (Now it is known as College Physics As Improved By Being Alexandra’s First Art Journal). No, I am not going to tell you EXACTLY what church because first, I forget its name, and second, I don’t want anyone else getting any big ideas in case another classic of this sort gets tossed out again. This book is amazing because it is written so beautifully and in such a measured way. As it so happens, I am very interested in physics. Not in the math equations—oh snore—but the big ideas. This book was published in 1957, the same year I was gestating in my mother’s womb. It was an amazing moment in science. On October 4 of that year, I, or rather, my mother’s Baby Bump, got a new nickname. That nickname was Sputnik. The small metal globe with its spikey antennae, a device that actually orbited the earth, sending signals back. What would that mean? It meant many things over the years, but the first thing it meant was that the Soviet Union had a message for the United States: Wake. Up. Something new was about to happen. And there I was, floating in utero just as Sputnik was floating in space. So I feel a deep kinship with Sputnik and all the scientific wonders that have flowered from that moment.

 

Now, you may wonder, why are YOU so interested in physics, Miss Alexandra? I do believe that you got a “Mercy D” in physics, and that you were taking physics at that snotty age when you thought you were above it all, and that science and math were like, all meaningless and shallow and dorky, while you were all art and poetry and bohemian magic (and scraping through high school with more than one Mercy D and Well Deserved F to show for it—I DID perk up in college, but that’s another story). Well, as I may or may not have mentioned, I have spent most of my long career writing for children. Some people think that is an easy job—just as somehow they think preschool teachers are actually preschoolers, and that they are more concerned with naps and playing at the sand table than in the development of young children and their awareness. Well, let people think what they want. I am in no position to judge. But I have and always have had a profound respect for those who write for children and teens. Because books for kids change their lives. I promise I will write more on that subject. But I want to thank the writers of fiction and nonfiction who gave my hungry, sad young mind the good food it needed to grow, and I am trying to return the favor as an adult.

 

ANYWAY, as I said, I have worked in publishing for about 175 years, most of them in publishing for young people. The last full-time regular job I had was one that definitely fed my hungry adult mind—working as an editor putting together books using material from a famous encyclopaedia. It was a great job because I literally got a “encyclopaedic” knowledge of many different subjects that would not be natural for me to read. And one of them was physics.

 

Okay, I can see that this post is getting to be like a town with many interesting streets down which one could wander. Let me just take one path for now. Suffice it to say, I am in awe of this book and yet I am trying to treat it as roughly and experimentally as I can. I am ripping out random pages, gluing others together, making collages that may or may not come together and have meaning. I’m writing with markers, drawing with tempera, acrylic, watercolor, I’m gessoing pages white, I’m using homemade stamps, and I’m looking forward to seeing what becomes of this collaboration between the authors, Robert T. Beyer and A. O. Williams, Jr., both of Brown University, and my still airy bohemian but humbled, science-loving self.

 

Writing Prompt: Is there some subject you have respect for that you despised as a child or teen?

135journals Book Club: The Muse is In, An Owner’s Manual to Your Creativity, By Jill Badonsky.

29 May

The Muse is In, An Owner’s Manual to Your Creativity. By Jill Badonsky.

 

 

 

Creating art on the High Line in Manhattan.

Doing art on the Highline in Manhattan–fun for the kids AND grown-ups.

IMG_0209

The Muse Is In, published by Perseus in 2013,  is a great book for people who are feeling uncreative. The  packs a lot in here. Incredibly charming illustrations that are tiny, loose and zany enough to make anyone feel as if they could do something similar (although it seems to me that they are done with great skill and technique), and she also addresses the stuck artist in us all with addressing the psychological issues of how to become more creative as well as techniques on how to unblock-yourself. For example, She says everyone gets to be creative, she shows creativity’s fringe benefits, helps the reader to get in an optimal state of mind (including taking TINY steps, perservere, love yourself, and being unafraid to fail.) But in addition to these helpful tips, she also includes a creativity idea for every day of the year. Many of them are prefaced by quotes from one famous creator or another. Just one example: “November 18:  B-day of novelist Margaret Atwood, whose last line of her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale, reads, “Are there any questions?” Write a piece,short or long, that also ends with that sentence.”

There are so many more—well, 364 of them. I just picked one short one, but some of them are far more inventive. The book is packed with delicious quotations about creativity, about using your own memories, trying new ways of looking at things, being unafraid. I know so many creative people, and often, they end up using that creativity in the service of their work—or worse, not using it at all, but being ground down by work and other obligations. If a person did one of these exercises a month—some of which would only take a few minutes–she’d be btter off for it. I enjoy books of this inspire-your-creativity very much, and this book is one of the best I’ve read. I don’t know what I enjoyed more—the images, the quotations, the ideas, the compassion. But it’s a very rich book and I highly recommend it.

 

Writing Prompt: Are you feeling stuck? What is one tiny step you can take to get UNstuck?

135Journals Book Club: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

11 May

 

 

 

 

Image

Fukushima accidents overview map. (thank you, WIimedia Commons). Was Nao there?

 

 

Could Ruth Ozeki’s compelling A Tale for the Time Being be called a portmanteau book—i.e.; one into which many different things are thrown, as if into an old trunk? It could be, I suppose. It touches on many things—Proust, Japan (both modern Japan and historical Japan), teenage girls, bullying, the Pacific Northwest, the patterns of movement across oceans, including gyres and vortexes, and , Zen Buddhism, Martin Heidegger’s ideas about  Dasein, quantum physics (including Schrodinger’s cat), and more–the Japanese earthquake/tsunami of 2011, global warming, and even a touch of mysticism. But it is saved from being just a book about a lot of different stuff by having a compelling plot and two engaging narrators. One is Ruth, a writer who lives on one of the Canadian islands off the coast of Vancouver island, if I am getting my geography right, with her intellectual and charming husband Oliver. (Note that Ruth Ozeki lives on one of those islands with her charming husband Oliver).

 

One day, she finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the beach. It contains several fascinating objects, including a plastic-wrapped book on the beach. It has a cover of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Times, but inside, the book has been “hacked” with blank pages—which are filled with Japanese writing. Ruth, Japanese herself, can read it, but she does so slowly. As she does, she gets to know Nao, the 16-year-old narrator. We first encounter Nao writing in a sleazy French maid café where waitresses feed food directly to the male clientele. She is angry and rebellious, as she has a right to be. She had grown up partly in Sunnyvale, California, where her father worked for a computer company. He’d lost his job and was now unemployed, making attempts at committing suicide. Her mother was trying to calm herself by watching a tank full of jellyfish in an aquarium all day. She herself was caught between worlds—in Japan, students who had lived in America were considered impure and stupid—and so she was treated to a brutal, particularly Japanese form, of bullying called Ijime. The saving grace for her was her 104 year old Buddhist nun grandmother, Jiko, whose Zen Buddhist ideas inspired and interested her.

 

Meanwhile, Ruth is doing various kinds of detective work to find out what has happened to Nao. She takes some writings in French also found in the lunchbox and finds a burly French-Canadian to translate them. Her husband describes how the book may have reached Canada’s shores from Japan because of certain types of gyres in the ocean current. Strange things are happening on the small island—a special kind of Japanese crow also appears suddenly one day. We learn that Ruth is from New York, but met her husband at a conference in Canada, and that he could not tolerate being confined in the urban atmosphere of New York. It becomes more and more urgent for her to find out where Nao has gone. And particularly, to find out if Nao survived the earthquake and the tens of thousands of deaths it caused. Their cat, Schrödinger,, disappears—this is a kind of in-joke for those interested in quantum physics, because in Erwin Schrödinger’s cat experiment, (or theoretical experiment, thank goodness, although let’s just say in retrospect Germans and poison gas just don’t seem like a tasteful combination) a cat is put in a box with poison gas, and, the cat both lives and doesn’t live, until the moment it is observed. This refers to the smallest particles and the universe, which Werner Heisenberg (I believe) made his famous “Uncertainty Principle” –the inference that we can’t know both the momentum and the position of the tiniest units of the universe at the same time. In fact, the more you know about one, the less you know about the other. In fact, here’s a joke to illustrate the point:

Heisenberg and Schrödinger get pulled over for speeding.

The cop asks Heisenberg “Do you know how fast you were going?”

Heisenberg replies, “No, but we know exactly where we are!”

The officer looks at him confused and says “you were going 108 miles per hour!”

Heisenberg throws his arms up and cries, “Great! Now we’re lost!”

The officer looks over the car and asks Schrödinger if the two men have anything in the trunk.

“A cat,” Schrödinger replies.

The cop opens the trunk and yells “Hey! This cat is dead.”

Schrödinger angrily replies, “Well he is now.”

ANYWAY, we learn more about Nao’s family tree, how her great-uncle was a suicide bomber for Japan during World War II—how he was forced to train for this mission, and what pain it caused for the grandmother. How Jiko teaches her the power of meditation as a “superpower” and it ends up helping her ground herself after a slide into seediness. How she and her father both hit bottom and struggle upwards. The translation of the material reveals the suicide bomber’s final thoughts.

 

We also learn about how similar Zen ideas about being and not being are to quantum physics. And also, how they have similiarities to German philosopher (and unfortunately, big NAZI) Martin Heidegger’s idea of their being such a thing as a “Dasein” (there-being—i.e; a being who is aware of being a being and who is therefore aware of his or her life taking place in a specific space and time, with complements of objects and other humans that have separate histories of existing and not existing at the same moment the Dasein (say you, as an aware human being) do.

 

And, we learn about a whole bunch of other things, in a gyre that seems to spin faster and faster, just as the gyre around the Pacific turns with an unusual quickness. Are too many ideas introduced too closely to the end? I think so. But at the same time, the solidity of the characters she has created, especially the character of the scrappy, thoughtful Nao, are strong enough to keep us holding on to the very end. I would highly recommend this highly readable yet quirky book. It is personal and stimulating and gives a fascinating glimpse into Japan’s future while at the same time finding fascinating connections between world events, science, religion, and more.

 

Writing Prompt: What is a book you’ve read recently that contains a richness of knowledge?

135Journals Book Club: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

2 May

Image

A circus in the 1890s (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

 

Erin Morgenstern conjures up a magical world within magical worlds in this inventive but accessible treat of a book. Set, mostly, in the 1880s-1890s, it is about Celia, a girl from New York, and Marco, a boy from London, and the terrible deal that is made by their guardians—that the two will have to use magic to compete with each other until one wins. What this means is a mystery. But this book is full of mysteries. Celia will perform as a brilliant illusionist in a very different kind of circus than the garish spectacles one usually sees. It is designed all in shades of black, white, and gray. It has a magical clock. It appears and disappears with great suddenness. And it is only open at night. Fans of this circus, called reveurs, start to follow it around, and dress in shades of black, white and gray with something red, so they can recognize each other. This strange landscape is richly detailed, and the reader can feel as if she or he herself is walking around eating one of the chocolate mice with licorice tails and feeling about the look and feel of this strange landscape

One of the things I noticed is that there are many story lines, and many characters, and yet, though the book shifted rapidly from one character’s experience to another, I didn’t feel lost. Every individual was quite distinctive. One reason for that is probably that they each had roles to fulfill—from Isobel, the fortune teller, who was in love with Marco, to the young twins Poppet (who got glimpses of the future) and Widget (who got glimpses of the past) , to Celia’s semi-disembodied and highly critical father, who used to slit her fingers to train her to use her mental powers to heal the cuts. For a long time, Celia does not know who her opponent is, but they collaborate on one mysterious tent, taking turns on trying to outdo each other with strange effects, such as a room where patrons walk through snow or a labyrinth that goes in all directions. But as the competition becomes more intense, so do the stakes. The path to discovering why they are on this path and what they should do about it is as labyrinthine as their tent.

One thing I did notice in this book is that the author made no attempt to make the characters sound as if they were living in the 1890s. Their speech and manners were completely modern. Their names are not reflective of the era, either—Tara and Lanie, for instance. I found it slightly annoying that a German character was named Friedrick, when the German name is almost always spelled Friedrich. I was surprised that no editor or copyeditor fixed that. However, that is a very small complaint.

 

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Night Circus—normally I hate circuses, with their crowds and spectacles. But the author used her own magic to conjure up a world that was compellingly interesting, and I too felt the power of her ability to be an illusionist in her own right, transporting me to a world that existed only in our shared imaginations.

And, oh, fellow writers, here’s a few interesting facts about the author: She’s also an artist. And she’s been doing National Novel Writing Month since 2003. According to Publisher’s Weekly, (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/47866-first-fiction-2011-erin-morgenstern-high-wire-act.htm) lthe author said, “I never really planned what I was going to write beforehand and in 2005, when I got extremely bored with my novel-in-progress, I sent all my characters to the circus. For the two subsequent Novembers, I wrote pages upon pages about the circus, and then spent a few years turning it into something book-shaped. It is perhaps both a blessing and a curse that fictional worlds spring into my mind nearly fully formed and it takes quite a while to sift through everything to find the story.” She also has an entertaining website/blog: http://erinmorgenstern.com/

 

Writing Prompt: What is a book that transported you to another world?