Tag Archives: reading

I’m out of words, I’m just going to draw things #1

14 Nov Concert to support the Metropolitan Orchestra of New Jersey, November 13, picture drawn by Alexandra Hanson-Harding.
Concert to support the Metropolitan Orchestra of New Jersey, November 13, picture drawn by Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

Concert to support the Metropolitan Orchestra of New Jersey, November 13, picture drawn by Alexandra Hanson-Harding.


It has been almost a week since the election of Donald J. Trump. My reaction changes day by day. Currently, I have reached the nonverbal stage. One way in which I, personally, am very fortunate, is that I am well adapted for hopeless situations. That is one of the gifts of having been relentlessly for five years when I was growing up.

The bullying started when I was eight years old and my family moved to the suburb of Wilbraham, Massachusetts. The school officials thought that anyone from the “big city” of Springfield had to have an inferior education. So even though I had been in the gifted program in Springfield (my mother tells me), they put me in the equivalent of the special education class in Wilbraham. The teacher was cruel and abusive. She gave me an F right away because we didn’t learn cursive until 3rd grade in Springfield and they learned it in second grade in Wilbraham. She screamed regularly. Kids on the playground told me I was “retarded.” The next year I was tested and put back into the gifted class but by then it was too late. I was a very small, sensitive, and dreamy girl, the type who spent hours imagining how fairies eat, but zero hours imagining why people wanted to be mean.

Hmm.  Not long ago, a woman I know knew a writer who was writing a book about people who were bullied. She asked if the writer could contact me, and the writer did. I thought for a long time if I would answer. It seemed very rude not to, but somehow, whenever I thought of saying anything about what happened during those five years, I felt the strangest feeling, as if I were clutching my stomach and as if my hands were flying up to my face at the same time, and thought, No. No. No. I never actually answered her.

But as bad as bullying was, I did get one benefit. Resourcefulness. To distract myself, I learned. I read. I learned new facts and with them created new stories in my mind as it floated above my unpleasant reality. I also loved drawing.  It became a habit and a pattern to escape into reading and drawing, to learning and to observing, when I had the least power.
When I was weak, these habits were an incredible solace. And at times when I was more powerful, it turned out that those things were quite useful as well. It was a silver lining to the unnecessary  pain to which I was subjected.

Gosh, I don’t know what brought that to mind this week of all weeks.

At any rate, this week–until just now, apparently–I feel as if words have just failed me. It’s a good week to return to habits I developed in a time when I felt helpless. So here’s something I drew yesterday. We went to a concert at the Milburn Public Library to support the Metropolitan Orchestra of New Jersey. It was a beautiful concert of Mozart and Brahms, and another solace for a sad and beautiful day. We saw the big lovely moon when we drove home. And I was with my beloved husband. This election is bad. But music is good. Love is good. The moon is good. And art is always good.





135Journals Art Corner #31

18 Nov
Stuffing Our Brains at Barnes and Nobles. Art Project #31. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

Stuffing Our Brains at Barnes and Nobles. Art Project #31. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

135 Journals Book Club: Still Life With Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen

21 May


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: Notes on Reading the first 21 percent of Proust.

26 Apr


Charles Haas was supposedly the model for Charles Swann (Wikimedia Commons)


One of the things I’ve learned from reading the first 21 percent of Proust (my Kindle tells me I still have 31 hours to go, so this is not very impressive), is that it’s important to know who’s who. So, I will start a list to help readers of characters who I have come across and what I know about them:


The Narrator: A sickly man, bad at sleeping, who remembers with painful exquisiteness of spending time in the fictional village of Combray in Northern France. He also was a sickly boy, and was very high strung. He loved nature, the beauty of gothic cathedrals, love. He was passionate about reading under the chestnut trees, and had a passion for certain actresses about whom he’d heard. He was also madly in love with a girl named Gilberte Swann, who was the daughter of his family friend, Charles Swann, an elegant Jewish man whom the family did not know was in high society in Paris, and his wife Odette.


Maman: His mother is a much-admired figure, generally very kind to him. She would read to him in a beautifully dramatic way that let the power of the prose come through. Although he was obviously a very dramatic, high strung child, he was a very loved one, both by her and his exasperated Papa.


Grandmere: She also loved her grandson deeply, and when they went to an excursion to the ocean near Balbec and he grew very sick, she tended him with great care.


Charles Swann: an elegant Jewish man whom the family did not know was in high society in Paris, so they treated him with a rather indifferent if friendly air. An entire section of the book is devoted to his tortured relationship with his future wife, Odette, who is not at all his style, and yet, he cannot resist her. Yet, when they are married, they seem fairly happy together (so far), although often they won’t be “seen” because Odette is not considered respectable in Combray. The section about their courtship is set before the narrator’s birth.


Odette Swann: The narrator is almost as fascinated by Odette as he is by her daughter. He notices each piece of clothing she wears the way he notices color, books, and the beauty of Gothic churches and their windows. Odette has a “salon” in Paris to whom she invites eminent people of a slightly more louche type than the ones offered by the more proper Madame Verdurin, who is another famous hostess.


Gilberte Swann: A mysterious girl who tortures the author by being alternately kind and unkind.


Bergotte: A famous writer whose particular style the author admires, despite the fact that he is made fun of by certain others for loving him. The narrator gets to become friends with him at Odette’s salons in Paris, to which he is invited when he is older.


Verteuil: A famous composer whom the author knows who wrote a suite that is very important to him. The narrator doesn’t know it’s the same Verteuil he knew from Combray who doted on his obviously lesbian daughter. The daughter’s lover moved in and after his death, the lover spat at Verteuil’s photo. The narrator spied on them together so he saw it, and it makes him think about the nature of human beings, how some thrive on sadism. Clearly, this is a boy who likes spying—and this quality comes through in his text.


The Guermantes family: This is the most aristocratic family in Combray. The narrator has romanticized ideas about them until he sees the duchess or countess or whatever she is in person and is surprised that she is not magically beautiful just because she is of noble birth.


So here are SOME of the people that populate the narrator’s world.


Writing Prompt: Who are a few of the characters that populate your world?

135 Journals Book Club: Notes on the journey of reading Proust (The First Six Percent)

25 Apr


Marcel Proust at age 15 (1887). I am so digging the bowtie. Definitely know what to give my boys for Christmas now. From Wikimedia.

Guess what I have on my Kindle Fire? That’s right, seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s strange and magnificent Remembrance of Things Past, or as it is now more accurately known, In Search of Lost Time (active, not passive, get it?).  I got it for free, and as it has long been one of my ambitions to find out what is so important about eating madeleines and to understand what the BFD is about M. Proust, I am actually starting to read it. This is going to take a while. I have read approximately a kajillion pages and my Kindle informs me that I have read six percent of the Seven Volume set, and only have 36 hours and 15 minutes to go. You would think that someone who had read six percent of something would not feel qualified to write a review. That is true. I am writing a qualified review. Because even at six percent, I feel as if I have learned a lot of things about writing, thinking, and the importance of detail.

 Fight now I will tell you what I’ve learned. The play-by-play, as it were. The narrator of the first book, Swann’s Way, is a high-strung, sensitive boy who dreams of being a writer, but doesn’t know what he wants to write. The first scene of the book is about his intense desire to have his mother give him a good-night kiss while she is busy entertaining their sophisticated and wealthy neighbor, M. Charles Swann. M. Swann has had an “unfortunate marriage” and the narrator’s family haven’t seen much of him recently, certainly not with his wife and daughter (especially because the wife is having an affair with someone else). But he is a lovely and generous man. The boy, remembered by the man he becomes, is semi-aware of the goings-on of the wealthier members of the town of Combray, the country village where the family has their second home, and where all of the action in the first six percent of the book takes place. A number of other characters are introduced—sickly Aunt Leonie, who enjoys lime-flower tisanes (and the narrator loves watching the lime expand in the water), the regal Guermantes family, an earthy and devoted maid, Francoise, and others. Throughout the pages, the narrator wonders about the nature of memory, the importance of small and specific moments. He includes lengthy descriptions of how


This is not a conventional book. His pages are not filled with dialog. But there is something compelling about this delicate boy who is constantly seized by violent awareness and sensation. He is almost skinless. The play of wind, the sight of flowers, afflict and attract him with an exquisiteness that is also painful. So do his own imaginings.


The power of beautiful things afflicts him. But it is those remembered things that have the most power. He says that nothing in the present can ever be as beautiful as those remembered things. That no flower will ever be as beautiful as the flowers he saw when he went on walks around the village of Combray with his father. And even then, at least on one occasion, he finds a kind of desperate relief from this sensitivity and observation by writing.


The memories of the past make me think. They make me want to write. It makes me want to remember exquisite moments.


The second part is about Charles Swann’s rather seedy romance with a floozy named Odette. Can’t say this stretch is giving me goosebumps the same way the first part did. But I have faith that things will come together.


And in the meantime, I will try to remember that even the most simple moments can seize you with a kind of violent beauty when they are remembered.


Writing Prompt: Oh please. You know what this is going to be. What is a haunting, excruciating moment you remember from your childhood?