So this is the sorry state of the latest journal of Ms. 135journals or so. Paint splatters from a painting on the other side of the paper. Not a very handsome likeness of Mr. 135journals. Conversation about drywall and counter mounted compost bins. An experiment with using gel medium as a transfer technique for a picture of a woodpecker that wasn’t entirely successful. But–despite the house construction, the health problems, the dented fender, the mess in my art room, I feel very lucky to have this year. I am so glad to have had time to learn about art, to read books, to talk to friends, to share a life with this beautiful creature whom I have loved since we were teens. I am proud of my wise children, and of the family I grew up with, and the one I married into. And of my family of friends.I I have had some grim times this year, but there hasn’t been a single day where I haven’t had a chance to learn something interesting and new in our great world of wonders. Even on the worst days, there is (are?) Kim Kardashian’s butt problems to amuse me. I haven’t lived up to all my hopes for myself. I haven’t been as good a friend as I wanted to be. I did not do enough to ease my friends’ sufferings, and I hope I do better next year. I did not drop XX number of pounds. I didn’t finish writing my novel. But oh how lucky I am to have had this difficult, beautiful, year. It was a like my messy journal, full of experiments, boring little everyday details, splashes of color, wrinkles, and nostalgia. It surprises me, as I wrote (illegibly) in the entry above, that we are “almost out of year!” I hope that you readers–and thank you so much for reading this very scattered and eclectic blog!–found some good in this year, and that next year will unlock a new treasure chest of wonders for you as well.
Writing Prompt: What surprised you this past year?
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?
The Muse is In, An Owner’s Manual to Your Creativity. By Jill Badonsky.
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?
I guess George Flegel was also teed off that he was left with all the dishes in his 1635 “Still Life with Stag Beetle” (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain).
Still Life with Breadcrumbs is a novel that is written with such tightness, and works so well that at the end of it, I had to open it up and start over to see if it was as good as I thought it was. And it was. I don’t necessarily think it is a classic that will live forever—but I do think it is a novel that asked questions and answered them, that created appealing characters whose rightness or wrongness for each other was instantly clear, and that it created a world that made sense and which left the reader completely satisfied. It also contained a lot of unpretentiously stated wisdom that was resonant with the characters and the lessons they had learned through their lives. At the heart of this book is an inevitable-but-how? romance between Rebecca Winters, a 60-year-old divorced photographer from NYC who had fallen on hard times and moved to a dumpy cabin in upstate New York in order to be able to rent out her own lovely New York apartment so she could save money to pay for her mother’s nursing home bills and various other expenses, and Jim Bates, a 44-year-old roofer who is so much more than a roofer. Rebecca and Jim meet at the beginning of this book, when she is confronted with one of those problems you don’t find on the Upper West Side—raccoons in the attic. Jim Bates, who is known for his ability to find things. He is pleasant and interesting in a low-key manner. Oh yeah, ladies. We know this guy. He fixes everything, he’s caring, he notices how good you look in your sloppiest clothes, but none of your annoying habits ( “Oh, I see you like putting PEANUT BUTTER in the REFRIGERATOR,” for instance), and who is handy with a snowplow just when you were getting cabin fever. Anyway, Jim eventually he offers her a part-time gig sitting with him in trees while he identifies particular tagged animals and she takes pictures of them. They get to know each other through thermoses of of sweet coffee (brought by him, of course) and long hours of chitchat—though they actually reveal little about the secret family responsibilities and worries that wear them down.
Meanwhile, she, who fits the classic novelistic trope of “Woman comes to town” starts exploring her new world. She takes hikes and finds strange little crosses, some decorated with trophies of photographs, and takes pictures of them. She gets to know the garrulous but loyal Sarah, owner of a local shop called “Tea for Two” that serves English food such as mouthwatering scones and Toad in a Hole, and soon, Rebecca is a regular, through Sarah’s no-good husband Kevin is a bit off-putting.
In addition to sitting in trees, reading the Classics and taking pictures, she reflects back on her own life,, about her former marriage to a selfish but glamorous English, Peter Symington. It was after a dinner party where he rudely went to bed without helping, AS USUAL, that she snapped a photo she called “Still Life with Breadcrumbs” of the mess. It was the first photo that made her famous but it would not be the last. She became wealthy and famous from her photos, (which would thoroughly irritate Peter, Despite living with the evil Brit (I’ve seen movies—aren’t they all?). But now, the cash flow is a cash drip and New York is no fun. So now she was trying to make do and sacrifice. It is always interesting to hear how people struggle with money, and it is also interesting to see how they cope with a new environment. And, it is intriguing to read about any artist’s “process.” For someone like Rebecca, al lot of her art comes from looking and looking until she captures the right moment. What that moment means remains mysterious—she is not a woman for putting things into words. She just has a feeling. And that is much like Jim. At a meeting of a fancy Women’s League where she is invited to speak, she is asked. “Could you tell us the secret to your success?”
“The secret is that there is no secret,” she replied. “That’s true of almost everything, in my opinion. Everything is accidental.”
When I read those lines, I almost laughed. For a character like Rebecca, whose calling is to look, that is true. But for the novelist who creates her world, NOTHING is accidental. There is a saying about playwriting that if there is a gun in the first scene, then the gun needs to go off by the end of the play. The very first SENTENCE of Still Life with Breadcrumbs, is “A few minutes after two in the morning, Rebecca Winter woke to the sound of a gunshot.”
In fact, one of the most interesting features of this book is just how different objects, thematic ideas, etc., come together by the end of the book. Just for the fun of it, I will share a few themes to look for: crosses, ladders, white flag, dog, houses, England, guns, money, ways of seeing, Mary Cassatt, thingsthat happen by accident.
There are many other appealing features of the book. Minor characters are drawn with efficiency, charm, and consistency. Rebecca’s evil ex-husband who taught about the erotic world of the medieval era is known as “Professor Porn.” Rebecca’s parents always had a fear of space heaters (emphasizing their urban side). Rebecca’s appealing son Ben is characterized by his dialog—“Don’t go all Lady Chatterly on me, Mom,” he says after learning of Jim. The chapter headings are succinct, colloquial, and delightful. For example: “How she Wound Up There—the Inspirational Version.” “Get a Job” “This is How These Things Happen—Part 1” (and 2).
I have always loved Anna Quindlen’s writing, ever since she wrote essays about life and parenthood for the New York Times. Back then, I lived in Hoboken, NJ, and so did she. I always dreamed I would run into her but never did. I wanted to thank her for her writing, if we had somehow met at Lisa’s Deli or Fiori’s Mozzarella shop where a wooden sign read, “The Taste of a Good Mozzarella is Remembered Long after The Price is Forgotten” (so true). But I can thank her now, for a thoroughly enjoyable book that was a treat from start to finish.
Many of the chapter headings in Still Life with Breadcrumbs could be used as writing prompts. Try using one of the three above–“How she Wound Up There—the Inspirational Version.” “Get a Job” “This is How These Things Happen—Part 1” (and 2) and write your own story.
135journals Book Club: In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust, Part 5: Grandmother’s Death18 May
Photo: Super famous Dr. Jean-Marie Charcot teaches a lesson on “hysteria” at his also super famous clinic at Salpetriere. (Wikimedia commons/Public Domain)
After attending a very elaborately described party, the narrator turns his attention to the growing weakness of his grandmother and his youthfuly blasé manner toward her as she got sicker and sicker. Indeed, this section of Guermantes Way is extremely harrowing and horribly comic as the same time. Physicians are called in, and one is more useless than the next, adding “milk diets” or, more repulsively, leeches, among other ineffectual cures. But at the same time as the narrator presents himself as insensitive toward his grandmother’s suffering, his later reflections show that he has thought deeply about it. This could be in part because of his own suffering. As he writes, pain is a fierce enemy:
“It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body. Say that we met a brigand by the way, we might yet convince him by an appeal to his personal interests, if not to our own plight. But to ask pity of our body is like discoursing before an octopus, for which our words can have no more meaning than the sound of the tides, and with which we should be appalled to find ourselves condemned to live.”
Meanwhile, the narrator watches his own impatience as he takes her out on a day he had friends to meet, with dreadful results. When he returns with her grandmother in a terrible state, When his mother sees her, she is appalled, protective, full of tenderness. Proust wrote, in words that actually brought tears to my eyes, and made me think of the preciousness of my own mother. “. . . my mother went up to my grandmother, kissed her hand as though it were that of her god, raised her up, carried her to the lift with infinite precautions in which there was, with the fear of hurting her by any clumsy movement, the humility of one who felt herself unworthy to touch the most precious thing, to her, in the world.”
Yet despite the family’s evident wealth, their ability to bring in the most expensive doctors, the grandmother is treated with little but condescension as she suffers dreadfully.
In one terrible but funny scene, an imperious Doctor De Boulbon, who is a former student of the famous neurologist Dr. Charcot (Dr. Charcot is real, often called “the founder of modern neurology” and is a remarkable figure—among his discoveries was Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and research into other diseases such as MS and Parkinson’s disease, though he was also controversially involved in his experiments with “hysteria”) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Martin_Charcot
who basically tells the suffering woman that all she needs to do is change her thoughts and stop malingering. Proust writes “Dr. Du Boulbon when he came decided against . .my grandmother . . . Instead of sounding her chest, fixing on her steadily his wonderful eyes, in which there was perhaps the illusion that he was making a profound scrutiny of his patient, , . . . tells her, “’ You will be quite well, Madame, on the day. . . which you realise there is nothing wrong with you, and resume your ordinary life. You tell me that you have not been taking your food, not going out?”
“But sir, I have a temperature,”
He laid a a finger on her wrist.
“Not just now, at any rate. Besides, what an excuse! Don’t you know that we keep out in the open air and overfeed turbuculosis patients with temperatures of 102.” .
. . . it was with the superior smile of a Parisian who, in conversation with a peasant, might hope to surprise him by using suddenly a word of the local dialect that Dr. du Boulbon said to my grandmother: “Probably a windy night will make you sleep when the soporisfics wold have no effect.”
“On the contrary, Sir, when the wind blows I can never sleep at all.” But doctors are touchy people. “Ach!” Muttered du Boulbon, knitting his brows, as if someone had trodden on his toe. . .
In the land of well-meant-(perhaps) but ineffective care, many positive thinkers are inclined to dismiss the very real and damaging sufferings of those in pain. There is almost a comedy of errors. The Duc de Guermantes walks over to shake the father’s hand in condolence while the grandmother is in her death throes—and doesn’t want to be kept waiting. Her two sisters don’t want to leave Combray to come to Paris because they found a musician they love to listen to, and his music is much more pleasant than sitting by the bedside of an old dying lady. On the other hand, their friend Bergotte, the famous writer (whom the author, unfortunately, no longer venerates as he once did) visits frequently.
One of the things that is so excellent in the narrator’s recounting of this sequence of events is that again, he is able to be very clear about what is going on without connecting the dots for the reader. A few comments make it clear where the narrator’s sympathies lie. Naturally, old ladies are known to die, but how difficult it is when a family is confused, when nobody knows the right thing to do, when a good and gentle lady cannot advocate for herself, and, even though she belongs to one of the richest families in Paris, gets not one to take her seriously. This sort of thing goes on today. One WANTS to believe doctors. But when one is both in agonies of pain and is bein accused of being neurotic and of needing to have a sunnier attitude and to get —when one is being “Brightsided,” as Barbara Ehrenreich called the phenomenon, in the book of the same—it can add to the pain a hundredfold. This unforgettable section of Proust’s masterwork is a reminder that the pain of those who are old, even if inevitable, matters as a deep human tragedy.
Writing Prompt: Have you ever suffered and felt as if you have not been heard?
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?
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?