Let’s Give Each Other Literary Prescriptions

During a hard time in my life, when I was really struggling with despair over the state of the world, I found myself dragging through the nearly 800 pages of historian Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.  Her book began by describing weather changes that limited the growing season across Europe for four hundred years and went on to explore the effect on average people when elites took every opportunity to expand their wealth and power. Willful ignorance and greed gave rise to invasions, revolts, and pograms. Atrocities in daily life abounded. It was common, for example, to leave unwanted babies outside to die of exposure, to abuse animals, to attend public executions for their entertainment value. Somehow this grim book helped me lift my head from what had me so downcast and see, no matter how dire things seemed, we humans have improved. A look back at history shows, despite current evidence, we are indeed evolving into more compassionate beings.

A few years later I ran across a far more directly life-enhancing book, Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You With Blessings by the imitable Rob Brezsny, whose bio describes him as an “aspiring master of curiosity, perpetrator of sacred uproar, and founder of the Beauty and Truth Lab.” I bought as many copies as I could afford, giving one to anyone whose spirit seemed weighted or who suffered from a chronic Eeyore-itis. I hoped the book’s magically reverent yet irreverent tone might heal them too.

Unexpectedly necessary books of all kinds have often shown up exactly when I needed them, a phenomenon sometimes called the work of library angels. More often, books have been suggested to me by people who were sure I’d love the same book they just finished reading. They are usually right. It’s no exaggeration to say that a day hasn’t passed since I learned to read that I haven’t spent at least some time with a volume of fiction or nonfiction.  To me, books are more than escape. They are a journey beyond myself. They lift me into wonder. When I close the pages I return to my life gratefully expanded for the view.

What have you been reading that elevates you? That makes you laugh? That helps you see things in a new way? That completely takes you into a new world? I’d love to hear what you’ve enjoyed lately. Here are a few of my literary prescriptions.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger. I have adored this author’s work ever since Peace Like a River.  Enger loves words and the way they can be layered. This is evident everywhere including in many of his character’s delicious names — Rune, Adam Leer, Shad Pea, Fergus Flint. And oh my, the main character’s name — an epic poet paired with threads from his poem. I was right there in this town, traveling through Virgil’s days with him. I could smell the old movie theater and see the films playing, could sense the raven’s claws on my shoulder and feel the kite string play out through my fingers. Enger deftly tells a story with nuanced emotion and quiet wit. Here’s a small dose:

“The old man had tears in his eyes. He touched my shoulder as the men rode in on their Harleys and Indians and Hondas. They were led by a graybeard on an olive-drab Triumph. In they rolled, gloves on, black helmets squeezing faces red from the wind, a pack of paunchy old centaurs come to bury their own.”

This book gives us a small town with wide open skies where people’s lives are touched by what is unknowable. Best of all, it ends on a note of redemption.

~~~

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory tells of a family in which each member possesses a psychic gift that may also seem like a curse. One of the characters in this entertaining book is truly an original in today’s literature. Buddy Telemachus has, since early childhood, seen the future. An observer might assume he suffers from a severe obsessive disorder or worse, but his behavior is that of a man desperate to avoid altering the future he sees and at the same time to save his family, even though he’s convinced his own timeline is running down to an early oblivion. I love (and weirdly understand) this character. Gregory’s story is addictive. Here’s a brief rumination by one of the main characters, (the obviously fuddy-duddy) Teddy Telemachus:

“The problem with getting old was that each day had to compete with the thousands of others gone by. How wonderful would a day have to be to win such a beauty contest? To even make it into the finals? Never mind that memory rigged the game, airbrushed the flaws from its contestants, while the present had to shuffle into the spotlight unaided, all pockmarked with mundanities and baggy with annoyances: traffic fumes and blaring radios and fast-food containers tumbling along the sidewalk. Even an afternoon such as this, spent cooling his heels in a well-appointed park, under a sky as clear as a nun’s conscience, was chock-full of imperfections that disqualified it from top ten status.”

~~~

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood is simultaneously hilarious and clever. It’s also strangely familiar, as if odd families wherever they may be still run on the same current. The author is a poet and precise writer. On nearly every page are passages so perfect they linger like chewy literary caramel.

“I sometimes wish my childhood had been less obsessed with the question of why we are here. But that must be the question of any childhood. To write about your mother and father is to tell the story of your own close call, to count all the ways you never should have existed. To write about home is to write about how you dropped from space, dragging ellipses behind you like a comet, and how you entered your country and state and city, and finally your four-cornered house, and finally your mother’s body and finally your own. From the galaxy to the grain and back again. From the fingerprint to the grand design. Despite all the conspiracies of the universe, we are here; every moment we are here we arrive.”

~~~

Jewelweed by David Rhodes is a multifaceted and marvelously written book. It’s told from many viewpoints—a chronically ill child, a wary young mother, a minister, an ex-con, a long-distance trucker, and many more. Each character reveals him or herself in quietly brilliant observations. For example, here’s a thought shared by Winnie, the minister.

“Winnie cherished Jacob’s need for passion from her, and sometimes imagined that his consciousness consisted primarily of an awareness of his own sexual instinct–his own gateway to rapture. Thankfully God had created this vital opportunity for bliss, yet Winnie remained convinced there were many more avenues that could be followed to divine pleasure. People could become hyperconscious in countless ways. It was possible. The sight of a hummingbird–along with the sound of its thrumming wings–once revealed to her how she had long ago lived with tiny black feet and a nectar-searching tongue. Her shoulders remembered the thrilled rhythms. On another occasion, the taste of a strawberry related its entire history of self-propelled spirit into matter. All human sensations could, she believed, provide paths to the same state of ecstatic worship. The principalities of civilization had hidden most of these gateways to heightened awareness, however, and for most people now, the only way back to the blessed original state involved a spectacular sexual event. And while Winnie rejoiced as much as anyone else in extraordinary sexual events, she sometimes feared that keeping the species alive had nearly replaced being alive, as if the entire galaxy of spontaneous felt-unity threatened to become perversely focused on one narrow impulse.”

~~~

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas Kristof and  Sheryl WuDunn is, like their equally compelling book Half The Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide, simply remarkable. The authors write about social ills and social progress, but in both books they do so through the stories of people who are making positive changes. These books carefully analyze the evidence  to help us understand how any of us can make a difference. Truly heartening and important reads, both. 

“Let’s recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower but also of chance and early upbringing, and that compassion isn’t a sign of weakness but a mark of civilization.”

~~~

The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of Heart by Brian Doyle, who passed away last year at age 60, leaving 20-some books. Too few from such a gifted, gentle soul. The impetus for this book began when Doyle’s infant son needed several heart surgeries. The boy grew up healthy, yet the author writes,

“Not a day goes by, not one, that I do not think of my son, tiny and round and naked and torn open and heart-chilled and swimming somewhere between death and life; and every day I think of the young grinning intense mysterious heart doctor who saved his life; and for years now I have wanted to try to write that most unwriteable man, to tell a handful of the thousands of stories that whirl around him like brilliant birds, to report a tiny percentage of the people he has saved and salved, and so thank him in some way I don’t fully understand, and also thank the Music that made him and me and my son and all of us; and somehow it seems to me that the writing down of a handful of those stories will matter in the world, be a sort of crucial chant or connective tissue between writer and readers, all of us huddled singing under the falling bombs and stars; and more and more over the years I have become absorbed and amazed at the heart itself, the wet engine of us all…”

This book meanders, as the passage above meanders, into faith and science and healing. I found myself reading parts of it aloud to my husband because they were just so beautiful. It’s a perfect read for anyone, at any age, who has had heart trouble. Also perfect for the rest of us because we have hearts too.

~~~

Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore centers on Milo, who hasn’t yet reached perfection and is nearing the cosmic limit of 10,000 incarnations. An added complication —Milo is in love with Death (who prefers to be known as Suzie). It’s a clever plot, allowing author Michael Poore to change voice and tone as he shows us dozens of these lifetimes. Some, including Milo’s life as a meatpacker, offer an insightful view of human motivation. The book is packed with tiny delights, like the occasional homage to Where The Wild Things Are. It’s also illuminated by passages like this one when Milo is trying, but failing to meditate:

“But it can’t be helped, because it’s not just your head, is it? It’s the head and soul of all the voices of all your ten thousand lives and eight thousand years and all their pasts and futures, all the cavemen and race-car drivers and milkmaids with pale cheeks, all the spacemen, crickets, economists, and witches. The voices are full of the things people are full of, the things they will carry with them into whatever future takes shape, things like waffles and hard work and things you hope no one finds out.”

At times I found the whole pretense of perfection a bit of an overreach. The between-life portions of the book felt frustrating, especially when Milo had just done something damn useful or deeply compassionate in his past life, but it still wasn’t perfect enough. If, as Reincarnation Blues insists, each soul is charged with achieving something amazingly transformative before ending the cycle of rebirth, Earth itself would be Nirvana. Or maybe that’s the point.

~~~

There are so many more books I want to talk about, but let’s hear what books are captivating you lately. It may be just the thing someone else needs to read.

Are You a Courtly or Carnal Book Lover?

 

I am that monster.

But hear me out. Or rather, hear Anne Fadiman who frames the monster dichotomy differently. In Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, she divides bookworms into two types: courtly and carnal lovers. In her view, those who approach books as courtly lovers treat its physical form as “inseparable from its contents” and do everything possible to keep it in as virginal state as when it was first published, believing any wear or damage to the book’s body is less than the contents deserve.

Carnal book lovers, in contrast, regard a book’s words as inviolable, “…but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them…” are no more than a vessel to be treated “…as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.”

Courtly book lovers use the thinnest bookmarks or avoid them entirely to avoid leaving any vestigial marks. That way when they’ve finished, they have honored the book by leaving it in pristine quality to keep or pass along.

Carnal lovers mark their places with whatever is at hand. That’s me. Among other things, I’ve used pens, other books, feathers, leaves, postcards, torn-out book reviews, and to-do lists. After I’m done I have often intentionally left in my books as small mementos —- a child’s drawing, a recipe, a cartoon. (I dog-ear the pages I want to return to, I use bookmarks to keep my place. Other monsters’ habits may vary.)

Courtly book lovers somehow keep their pages pristine despite the very human dew of sneezes, tears, and baby drool.

Those of us who are carnal book lovers love more messily.  We read in bathtubs and under leaky umbrellas, on sandy beaches and in leaf-spattered tents. We barely look up from the text while drinking coffee, slurping soup, or slopping curry into our mouths. A few unintentional spatters add to the history we have with that page— a sort of personal “Kilroy was here” marking what else we were taking into our bodies as we were taking those words into ourselves.

A courtly book lover is careful to never, ever crack a book’s spine. Some of us in the carnal lover category splay open a book’s spine as we read so that light leans into every inch. Some of us turn open books over to hold our places or set something on an open book to hold it as far open as possible. To us, the cracked spine is a sure sign of a well-loved, much-consulted volume.

Possibly most offensive to courtly lovers is marking a book’s pages. Underlining starring, sketching, and writing margin notes seems downright abominable to them. But to carnal book lovers like me this represents a personal conversation with the author and the author’s ideas. When my friend Diane passes a book along, I enjoy what she’s underlined and written, as if she’s reading it along with me. When I read a book my father once owned I enjoy his penciled margin notes, many of them addressed first-person to himself. Back when I bought used textbooks, all those highlighted portions and margin notes helped me pay more attention. Sometimes that was because I wouldn’t have underlined what previous readers found important, other times because those scrawled comments were more interesting than the book’s text.

The carnal book lover’s approach can and often does result in loving a book to shreds. Heck, that means we have to buy another copy to share, which is a great way to support authors we love. Courtly lovers tend to buy copies to share as well, because they’d rather not expose their beloved books to the ravages of another reader. Win/win for authors!

What we all have in common is love of books. Books sink into us, transport us, allow us to live hundreds of lives. When and where we’ve read them is often forever locked into what we’ve read.

What sort of reader are you?

 

30+ Book Nerd Delights

book nerd, book bucket list,

How many of these do you want to do? Have many have you done? 

Create a hidden room behind a book shelf.

Take a photo of a book title that perfectly epitomizes your day and share on social media.

Read in a cozy retreat like a hammock, tent, yurt, tree fort, whatever sounds cozy to you.

Pay attention to Library Angels. This is the name given to reading materials you aren’t looking for that somehow appear in your life and turn out to be exactly what you need. Here’s a peek at the strange history of book synchronicity.

Regularly exult in the wonder of libraries. In case you’re not aware, library drinking fountains dispense magic water. Really, try it.

When traveling, make a point of visiting an area library. For incentive, here are some of the world’s most beautiful libraries.

Leave a Post It note to the next reader of a library book.  Maybe a simple, “Dear Next Reader, I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.  warmly, Previous Reader.”

Name a child after a literary character or author. There are plenty of lists online like FlavorwireMomJunction, and Babble but chances are, your name and the names of your family members have probably already shown up in literature. Just do a search for “name fictional character.” (My kids’ names are found in the classics, in Star Wars, and in video games although we actually chose names that seemed wise and gentle.)

Bestow literary names elsewhere in your life. When I was a kid, my pink bike was named after a fictional horse. Over the years we’ve given cows, chickens, and dogs some lofty monikers. I tend to name things around the house too, like our vacuum and our kefir starter…

As you read, drink what the characters are drinking in the book.  Local microbrew with Bill McKibben’s Radio Free Vermont, gin with Anne Patchett’s Commonwealth, locally made wine with any of the Inspector Bruno mystery series by Martin Walker, Prosecco  with Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series of novels, hot chocolate mixed with a hint of hot pepper with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

Start or join a book club. If you have time, don’t limit yourself to one.

Indulge in poetry-infused movies and movies about writers.

Savor quotes from your favorite books by copying them onto a plate or mughand printing them on a scarf, or writing them on a shirt using a bleach pen.

Go to book fairs. They’re available in every state of the U.S.  and around the world.

Reread a favorite childhood book to figure out how it shaped your life. (I’m pretty sure The Secret Garden saved me.)

Go to a workshop offered by an author you admire.

Go through a book shelf and donate high quality volumes you no longer want to your local library or an area women’s shelter. Or ship them to Books for SoldiersBooks for Africa, or Reader to Reader. (Huzzah, you’ve just given yourself space for more books.)

Try the read and release method with BookCrossings. Once you’ve read and enjoyed a book, simply go online to print out a label, then leave your book in a public place like a coffee shop, playground, or waiting room. The label assures others the book is free to anyone interested. The label also contains a code so readers can track and follow books as they are read, discussed, and released again elsewhere in the world. Currently, nearly 12 million books are traveling through 132 countries.

Make a composition book cover or try simple bookbinding.

Read under a tree or in a tree or anywhere in nature that inspires you.

Stay up all night to finish a book.

Buy a copy of a book you appreciated and send it to a friend, just because. Do this often.

Whenever possible, buy your books from local brick and mortar bookstores. And get to know the people who work there, they’ll have excellent book suggestions. (But beware. I was thrilled to see a bookstore open not far from me. Although it quacks like a bookstore, it doesn’t act like one. It has lots of local authors and locally made bookish crafts with a token array of bestsellers, but it turns out the owner charges “partners” a non-refundable application fee of $75 to have their book or products sold there for a limited period of time. I cannot imagine what will happen to authors if such a model becomes commonplace.)

When you buy books online, consider steering your dollars to an ethical business or non-profit like Better World Books  or Biblio.

Eat what characters are eating in the book. Thick inviting sourdough bread while reading Sourdough by Robin Sloan, hot fish and corn muffins while reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, authentic bird’s nest soup while reading The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang,  peanut butter bar cookies topped with chocolate while reading Kitchens of the Great Midwest  by J. Ryan Stradal, nachos with cheese sauce while reading The Nix by Nathan Hill, a hearty sandwich of the sort served at The Bistro, in nearly any of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache Series (sign up here to get a free download of Three Pines recipes).

Read in the tub. Or a pool. Or the ocean.

When you travel, read a book set in your destination. Heading to San Francisco? Try  The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: A Novel of Robert Louis Stevenson by Brian Doyle.  Off to a small town in Wisconsin? Read Jewelweed by David Rhodes. New York City? Try Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.

Shape snacks that look like books out of fruit leather, honey, and chocolate.

Or heck, help your area library or bookstore run an Edible Book Festival.  Here are some images from the annual festival at Cleveland’s own Loganberry Books.

Cancel plans, then read.

Make altered books.

Connect with your favorite authors on social media. Link to them with a meaningful quote or the way their work changed your outlook. Want more suggestions for showing authors your love? Here are 17 ways.

Let what you read inspire your own work. As Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist says,  “Read deeply. Stay open. Continue to wonder.”

Waking the Spirit

Waking the Spirit, Andrew Schulman

“Music is the universal language of mankind.”  ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Andrew Schulman was born so ugly that his grandmother refused to believe he belonged to their family. She insisted the hospital investigate to make sure there wasn’t a baby mix-up.  Many years later, his cousin Miriam told him the nurses felt sorry for that disputed lone baby in the nursery, so they held him and sang to him all day. “Show tunes,” she said. “I heard them when I was there. It was so lovely.”

He writes in his new book, Waking the Spirit, “I like to think that my brain was wired in the nursery by the healing power of music.”

Andrew grew up to become a successful musician. He plays Carnegie Hall, the White House, and throughout Europe. He has three CD’s, an active performance schedule, and an enjoyable life with his wife in NYC.  His life, however, changed when he went in for surgery.

The operation was a success but on the way to recovery he suffered a rare reaction and was clinically dead by the time they rushed his gurney out of the elevator. Although they managed to resuscitate him in surgical intensive care, they couldn’t stabilize him. Doctors put him in a medically induced coma for several days, but his organs began to fail. He was not expected to live. His wife, desperate, asked permission to play music for him. His favorite piece, Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” popped up on his iPod. After a half hour, still apparently unresponsive, his vital signs began to stabilize. Confounding doctors, he recovered quickly over the next few days.

As Oliver Sacks once said, “Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music.” Andrew explains in his book, “Music reaches neural networks, including some of the most primary…. such as the brain stem, the cerebellum, and the amygdala. Music then initiates brain stem responses that, in turn, regulate heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, and muscle tension…. ”

We know that music chosen by parents and performed for premature babies for a few minutes at a time helps to calm them, resulting in longer quiet-alert states and easing pain.  Music sung by parents has a beneficial effect throughout infancy. Babies respond to music, even regular drumbeats, with increased smiling. In fact research shows that babies correlate their movements with the tempo and rhythm. They dance! And music gets a much greater response than spoken words. No wonder adults all over the world naturally engage babies in a sort of singsong-like call and response. We’re translating our language into one that is more evocative to mind and body.

Music makes a difference at the other end of life too. Studies of music in hospice care show  it can reduce anxiety, pain, and fatigue while enhancing mood, energy, and sense of spiritual comfort.

After Andrew fully recovered he made his way back to the same surgical intensive care ward at the same hospital. This time as a musician. Three times a week, every week, he enters the SICU, walks through the ward guided by intuition as much as beeping monitors, then sits at a bedside and begins to play.

People on this ward are very ill. They’re likely in pain and afraid. They may be in and out of consciousness, even comatose as he was. He plays all sorts of music for them, happy to honor requests by patients, family members, and staff. But he’s found music by certain composers has the greatest healing effect — Bach, Gershwin, the Beatles, along with Franz Schubert’s “Ständchen” and, strangely enough, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Freddy Mercury.

In his experience, Bach’s music is the gold standard.  It almost magically seems to increase alertness, reduce pain, and stabilize vital signs. Neuromusicologist Arthur W. Harvey agrees. Andrew quotes Dr. Harvey, “Of all the music we tested in medical school with patients, colleagues, and others, Bach’s music consistently made the brain work in a balanced way better than any other genre.”

Dr. Harvey and students studied the effect of music on the body using brain scans, focusing on seven genres: chant, Baroque, classical, gospel, new age, jazz, and folk. After two years they concluded Baroque era music most effectively “…stabilized the different rhythms of the body and mind — mental, physical, and emotional — which allowed for greater concentration and focus. Bach’s music consistently showed the best results in this regard.”

Andrew tries to unlock what it is about Bach.  “…Bach’s music utilizes both chordal music (music characterized by harmony) and contrapuntal textures (the interweaving melodies) somewhat equally, which provides for music processing in both left and right hemispheres of the human brain. A descriptive characteristic of his music and music of his time is the significance of balance… You hear sounds that are soft and loud, high and low, short and long. Rhythms that are slow and fast, simple and complex. Melodies and harmonies that have enormous stylistic variety.”  Such music stimulates brain functions without overload.

Andrew goes on to note that healing music often comes from composers who themselves suffered from depression and other forms of mental illness. Perhaps despair transmuted into beauty more profoundly eases other people’s suffering.

I can’t help but consider all that troubles our beautiful world. When music helps to lift the individual mind from unconsciousness to consciousness, surely music helps to lift our collective awareness as well.

After all, music is used to lull small ones to sleep, rouse teams to victory, woo lovers, deepen worship, commemorate solemn occasions, and celebrate joy. Throughout history, music has been a traditional way  to bring peace and justice. Through music we more fully grasp that all of us feel grief, love, fear, injustice, delight, and moments of transcendence. Let’s play one another into a more loving world.

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” ~Leonard Bernstein

Library Angels

library angels, or how the right book just appears

“Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.”  ~Emma Bull

Sometimes the book you need just appears. You never imagined it exists and then suddenly bam, it’s right there in your hand.

Maybe that book sets you off on a new quest, or lightens your weighted heart, or snaps on a mental light switch. You’re never quite the same afterwards.

This happens to me pretty often.

Most commonly, the book I need drops from the shelf or persistently gets in my way when I’m looking for another book at the library. This occurred more frequently back in those golden-hued days when my favorite library was tightly packed with tall stacks of books.  It required some wandering and often some teetering on a wooden stool to find a particular book. That gave a book that needed to find me a chance to fling itself in my direction.

The right book for me also once appeared in a used book inside the wrong dust cover and another time was left on a dirty seat next to me in a muffler repair shop.

Such delightful happenstance isn’t confined to books. Utterly necessary articles, quotes, interviews, and poems appear as if by magic in my life as well. In The Roots of Coincidence, Arthur Koestler calls this literary synchronicity the work of “library angels.” 

British author Rebecca West told Koestler about her experience with a library angel back in 1972. She had been researching a specific episode of the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

I looked up the trials in the library and was horrified to find they are published in a form almost useless to the researcher. They are abstracts, and are cataloged under arbitrary headings. After hours of search I went along the line of shelves to an assistant librarian and said, “I can’t find it, there’s no clue, it may be in any of these volumes.” I put my hand on one volume and took it out and carelessly looked at it, and it was not only the right volume, but I had opened it at the right page.

Aleksandr  Solzhenitsyn writes about another such strange coincidence in The Gulag Archipelago. While he was incarcerated in Leningrad, a new prisoner was brought in. The man was a renown physicist who happened to be obsessed with working through a technical problem, but it required certain mathematical tables. There was no chance of getting those tables, since the only books permitted in the prison were works of Party propaganda distributed to the cells at random. One week a library worker came around and passed out the very book the physicist needed. The scientist memorized the necessary tables before the mistake was noticed and the book confiscated.

My library angel experiences aren’t as gobsmackingly surreal as these two examples by any means, but I’ll take all the positive coincidences I can even if I don’t know what mysterious force to credit. Library angels? A benevolent God who speaks to the bookish among us on our own wavelength? The universal consciousness at work? (They’re all names for Mystery well beyond our understanding anyway…) It doesn’t matter, when a book shows up unexpectedly I have learned to pay attention.

I’d love to hear your stories of coincidence, word-related or otherwise.

I Want You To Meet Kathy Ceceri

 

Kathy with one of her newest books.  Photo provided by Kathy Ceceri.

Educator and author Kathy Ceceri  and I have been colleagues on and off for nearly 15 years, writing for some of the same publications and collaborating on projects. Kathy has always been an inspiration to me — focused and innovative with a powerful can-do approach. It’s not just me. Her work inspires kids, parents, and educators every day.

Kathy has written nearly a dozen books and kids in her hands-on workshops make fascinating things. Really fascinating — like a hydraulic Lego 3D food printer, solar baked oatmeal cookies, a light-up paper cat, or a swarm of gliding vibrobots. Better yet, her goal is getting them to come up with their own creations.

I suspect all of us would like to know more about Kathy. I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

My background is in journalism, although my training was all “on-the-job,” writing news reports, lifestyle and art features, and investigative pieces for newspapers, magazines, and websites.

My training in education was all “on-the-job” as well — I homeschooled my two sons from kindergarten up until college. I have written about kid-friendly hands-on learning projects for Family Fun and Wired.com, and as the “Homeschooling Expert” (yes, that was really my title) for About.com. I currently produce books and articles for Make Magazine and other publishers and lead workshops for kids, families, and educators.

How does starting out as a writer and artist lead to a quest to advance STEAM and Maker learning?

STEAM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math,” and the Maker Movement is about building, inventing, and exploring in the physical realm (as opposed to creating software). Both these educational trends excite me because as a kid I was always creating homes, environments, and accessories for my dolls and recycling materials into playthings. I was also very crafty, trying a little bit of everything that came along from stained glass to candlemaking to macrame. And my favorite type of reading was fantasy and science fiction.

I studied some art in college but never really applied it until I discovered ways to incorporate it into projects that involved engineering and science. Today design and technology is an area of concentration in many art programs, but not when I was in school! Making robotic systems out of cardboard and duct tape is a perfect expression of everything I enjoy. And it seems to appeal to an audience of teachers and students who want to get started but don’t know where to dive in (or don’t have the resources to start big).

Can you share a project or two in depth? (including a link to instructions?)

Sure! This Tin Can Cooker project from my latest book Edible Inventions dates back to my days at Girl Scout camp.

And these recipes for Refrigerator PIckles and Yogurt in a Mug are family standards.

You can find links to more projects from my books at my website Crafts for Learning.

Are your projects do-able for people who don’t have much in the way of DIY experience.

Definitely. I describe my projects as “low tech/no tech” and I design them to draw on skills and materials that most people already have. As I always say, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Can you share a story of how hands-on projects can empower kids?

My favorite stories are the parents who come back and say, “He spent the whole weekend working on making his robot better,” or “She went home and taught her sister how to make that project.”  If nothing else, kids who try my books and workshops come away knowing how to troubleshoot, and have a little more confidence about trying something to see where it leads. The nice thing about Maker projects is there’s no one right answer. Unlike math worksheets, there are many ways to set out, and many different directions you can go in. That’s something kids don’t get enough of nowadays.

You are making a difference. Can you give us some encouragement to follow our own passions? 

That’s very nice of you to say! If I’ve followed my passion, it’s because it was the path that best fit the life I had at that moment. I guess my advice is don’t be afraid to promote yourself and your particular strengths and talents. If you’re passionate, sooner or later you’ll find someone who responds to that energy and will open up new ways to channel it that you might not have imagined.

Kathy’s book titles include:

And her newest, due out in March 2017.

Check out Kathy’s site Crafts for Learning for low-tech projects, her workshop schedule, and Makerspace suggestions. Thanks Kathy!

Photo permission by Kathy Ceceri.

Photo permission by Kathy Ceceri.

Fiction Worth Fawning Over

fiction worth reading

My desk is littered with what from a distance might look like irregular paper snowflakes. They work their way into stacks of books, unfinished to-do lists, and other desk detritus.  As you might imagine, they aren’t snowflakes. They’re book titles torn from magazine and newspaper reviews.

As an insomniac, I have plenty of time to read. A few nights ago I gave up trying to sleep a little before 2 am. I got up, snuggled in a blanket on the couch, and read until it was time to make coffee and start the day at six. That probably explains how I get through so many books in the average week.

I wouldn’t be able to support my reading habits if I bought most of what I read. Instead, I order them from one of civilizations best inventions, the library. I don’t know about you, but when I own a book it languishes because I’ve got all the time in the world to read it. Yet I’m motivated to zip through library books since they’re mine for only a few weeks.

Although I review books and read book reviews, I know reviews aren’t even close to a sure thing. (As my daughter says when I’m once again disappointed in a much-anticipated volume, “What have we learned about reviews?”) Instead, I’ve found that recommendations from friends are the best way to find the titles  I’ll fall in love with next.

So, as a friendly gesture, I’m sharing some books I love in hopes that you will too.

 

 State of Wonderby Ann Patchett takes us into the Amazon jungle where the competing aims of pharmaceutical researchers and indigenous people unfold in prose so vivid you can feel the humidity and hear the insects.  This is a tale of lies, poison arrows, reluctant heroes, and strange miracles. The last few chapters offer an entirely satisfying conclusion without a trace of the cloying sentiment so common in lesser books.

 

 

aAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr has won many (richly deserved) awards including the Pulitzer.  I read this book soon after it came out and actually grabbed people’s wrists as I implored them to read it. The main characters are a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy growing up as war irrevocably alters their destinies. Their stories swoop through the lives of many characters, even the minor ones so clearly rendered that they’re real as the person sitting next to you. There are few novels by any author as perfectly executed as this one

 

 

The Signature of All Thingsby Elizabeth Gilbert is one of those rare books which manages to combine science and history into a captivating story.  In it, a brilliant young woman defies her era’s conventions to pursue science, eventually leaving behind her quiet life to explore the larger world.  The book manages to be cerebral and carnal, large in scope yet about the miniature cosmos of moss. Although there were a few pages that jangled off-key, it is an amazing book. I gave it as a gift to one friend along with terrarium I’d planted with mosses. (A trip to Tahiti would be just as relevant, but moss is a bit more affordable.)

 

aPeace Like a River by Leif Enger is, I daresay, is as timeless a masterpiece as To Kill A Mockingbird.  The plot seems ordinary enough: a family from rural Minnesota goes on a quest to save the eldest son who has escaped from jail during his trial for murder. The telling,  however, illuminates the ordinary to gleaming transcendence. The fully drawn characters of Peace Like a River are people you want to invite to dinner so you can thank them for offering such sustenance. Enger makes every line worth savoring in this story of justice, faith, and enduring loyalty.

 

Euphoria by Lily King is very loosely based on episodes in the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead.  I’ve been quietly obsessed with (and often appalled by) anthropology since discovering it was a thing back in high school.  Euphoria has that and much more: revelation, rivalry, lust, despair, and a recognition that what we see says more about us than who we’re observing. Reading it, I was so immersed that I was surprised to look up and find I wasn’t climbing a ladder to a treehouse in the wilds of New Guinea.

 

 

The History of Love by Nicole Kraus is artful, complex, and beautifully written. There are books within this book, including a book written about a Polish girl named Alma and decades later,  another Alma, named after a character in a Chilean book that her mother is translating.  Kraus pulls together disparate strings including Holocaust survival, plagiarism, and a ten-year-old lamed vovnik — knotting them into a hauntingly lovely story about overcoming the greatest cruelty of all, loneliness.

 

 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a stark look at a world we take for granted — where small rectangles hold the power to connect us with people around the world, where metal cylinders transport passengers across the sky, where something magical called the Internet answers every question — although that world is gone in Station Eleven. After nearly all of humanity has been wiped out by a plague the future is a dangerous place, but we see it come alive through a troupe of artists who travel from settlement to settlement playing Beethoven and performing Shakespeare. Their motto is lifted from Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient.” This book brings that motto come alive.

 

Speak by Louisa Hall offers us five very different voices, each emerging from different times and places. They include Alan Turing, a Puritan girl, and a doomed babybot. These characters act within ever-tightening strictures that, together, make up a larger pattern. Hall asks us to consider what it means to understand each other in this thought-provoking and entirely original novel.

 

 

 

Jewelweed by David Rhodes is a book of quiet insight told from many viewpoints—an ex-con, chronically ill child, wary young mother, minister, long-distance trucker, and others. Although it takes place in rural Wisconsin, the humble epiphanies Rhodes shares are relevant in any setting. At 464 pages this is a long novel, but you may find yourself wishing for a sequel. I do.

 

 

The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant was written in 1971, yet it’s ever more necessary in our time. The novel centers on a successful yet desperate man who finds himself transported to an unknown place, one that seems primitive to him. He finds he’s landed in a kind of Eden where the inhabitants uphold and maintain the “real” world through their dreams. I was reminded of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael as I read Bryant’s book, but Quinn’s book left me in despair while this one imparted a sense of delight and wonder.

 

 

Bel Canto (P.S.) by Ann Patchett. Yes, another Patchett book! Music forms the spine of this unlikely story. Wealthy international businessmen, a world-famous singer, and desperate terrorists move the storyline along with pacing that speeds up and slows down like the plot of an opera, coming to a sudden ending with nary a curtain call. Even if opera isn’t your thing, you may find yourself searching out pieces integral to the narrative. I suspect this novel, all on its own, created many new opera lovers.

 

 

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. I’ve never encountered a book quite as imaginatively intelligent.  Written by a neuroscientist, this intriguing volume offers wildly divergent speculative tales. Each is only a few pages, but Eagleman packs them with such fresh ideas that it’s best to read only one at a time in order to fully savor them.  This book makes a great gift. I’ve given it to a teen, to one of those people who have everything, and to someone who insisted he wasn’t much of a reader. They all adored it.

 

Okay, if my motive still isn’t apparent, I want you to tell me what fiction YOU are fawning over!

17 Ways to Show Authors Your Love

image: vjcx.com

We know how to love celebrities and athletes in our culture. We hashtag them, go to their performances/games, read about them, imitate them, talk about them, and in many other ways make these people an ongoing presence in our lives. (Note: there may be a strange reason we’re so obsessed with celebrities.)

It’s less common to love writers, far less common to show it.

Today’s publishing houses expect authors (other than the most commercially promising ones) to do their own book marketing. We’re expected to blog, tweet, arrange book signings and readings, do interviews, and otherwise connect with potential readers as if there’s nothing awkward about begging people to buy our words.

But we know that books, articles, essays, poems, blog posts, (actually, all forms of writing) live on only when they’re read. It’s even better if they’re discussed, shared, and remembered. My writer friends and I do our best to promote one another’s work to a wider audience. Most writers do this for each other. If you’re inspired, take a tip or two from us and show some authors your love.

Share a great author interview or book review. Share a passage from a book, article, blog post, or poem. Toss it out there on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, whatever social media you use.

Quote. If you’re writing a report or giving a presentation, sprinkle in a relevant quote or line of poetry. It’ll add another dimension to your work.

Review books you love on Amazon.com, Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, BarnesandNoble.com, wherever you go to check reader reviews. You can make it easy on yourself by simply leaving a bunch of stars. Take it up a notch with a glowing one-line opinion. On Amazon, you only need to click “like” to boost a book or other people’s reviews of the book. Your viewpoint really does help potential readers find what to read next.

Contact local authors. Ask an author to answer questions for an interview you’ll publish online or in print. Invite an author to do a reading or lead a discussion for your organization, club, or business either in-person or via Skype.

Advocate for writing that has changed your outlook, expanded your interests, led you in entirely new directions. A few months ago Facebook bristled with personal lists of 10 Life Changing Books. I love hearing what books impact other people and I’m often inspired to read those titles too. (Here are 10 that occur to me at the moment: The Secret GardenOriginal Wisdom, The Continuum Concept,  Nature and the Human Soul,  A Paradise Built in Hell Pronoia Is the Antidote for ParanoiaMan’s Search for MeaningBeyond WarSpontaneous Evolutionanything by Charles Eisenstein.)

Give books as gifts. They make wonderful presents for birthday, holidays, and milestone celebrations. They’re great to give simply when it occurs to you that a specific book and a specific person might go well together. Give books to children for special occasions but also for fun. Don’t forget to leave an inscription even for the youngest. If you like, pair a book with a small related present. Tea, coffee, or something more spirited is a perfect accompaniment to any book gift.

Try something different. Indulge in your favorite genres and let yourself branch out from there. A fan of historical novels set in a certain era? Try poetry from that time period, non-fiction books about the art or science of the era, biographies of people from that time, as well as history magazines and related sites. I’ve come across writing I normally wouldn’t read only to discover a passion for science-y novels, tomes on evolutionary biology, sites offering vintage maps, work by outsider artists, and other fascinations.

Request. I couldn’t possibly afford to buy a fraction of the books I read. Instead, I’m a unrepentant library addict. If there’s a book you’d like, order it from your local library. They’ll call or email you when it’s available. If they don’t own a copy, ask them to purchase it. Some library systems put request forms online, other systems prefer you go directly to a librarian to request a book acquisition.

Hang out with other book lovers. Our boys’ book club lasted till they all went off to college, over 9 years of lively bookish gatherings. And I’m a long-time member of an adult book club. It prompts me to read books I wouldn’t normally read and our wide-ranging discussions are a delight. You can start up a book club with friends or join an existing group. Check out nearby clubs through Reader’s Circle, your local library, or Meetup.

Offer books for sale through your business. If you have a bike repair shop, offer guides to bike trails along with some bike-riding memoirs. If you run a stand at a farmer’s market, offer a few cookbooks and urban farming volumes. If you own an art gallery, sprinkle a few poetry and art books among your offerings. (I am endlessly grateful that Elements Gallery  in Peninsula, Ohio sells copies of my poetry collection.)

Give magazine subscriptions as gifts. There are a wealth of options, from boat-building magazines to literary journals to kids’ science publications.

Recommend. Create your own list of favorites on a topic via Amazon’s Listmania. Perhaps “Little-Known Poetry Books You Should Read…” or “Alternative Education Books We Use….” While you’re at it, search all the Listmania lists of interest to you.

Link. An insight or idea sticking with you? Link to (or at least attribute) books or author sites when you write about ideas they’ve prompted in you.

Talk about writing you love. I tend to go on and on with vast enthusiasm about what I’m reading. I adore memoirs from the sublime to the hilarious: A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Kick Me by Paul Feig. Beautifully written, unforgettable novels such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,  The History of Love by Nicole Kraus, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Animal books, a worthy indulgence, including The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery and A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. Sci-fi like The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant and Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi. And  books that don’t fit in any category like Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Really, read these books!

Promote. The Southern Independent Booksellers Association started a YouTube channel called Parapalooza! Submit a video of yourself reading a passage from a favorite book to parapalooza@sibaweb.com. If you live in the UK, contact Steve Wasserman of Read Me Something You Love. He’ll come out to record your reading of a passage you choose, along with some conversation. If it’s poetry you adore, read one you love aloud for Record-a-Poem. You can also reach out to others in your community who’d like to share a favorite poem through the Favorite Poem Project or start up a poetry-sharing group on Meetup.

Read already. Titles piling up on your Kindle, overdue library books, a teetering stack of magazines next to the couch are all evidence that you want to read. But you’ve got more to do than you’ve got time. Admit it to yourself, you’ll never defeat your in-box. Might as well go lie on the grass or in the tub or on your couch and read!

Connect. Follow authors on Facebook or follow their tweets. Write to them care of their publishers. You might send a brief note about how much you enjoyed a book or how it or improved your life. You might send suggestions, questions, a cheerful aside. Writing is a solitary occupation. When an author hears that his or her work made a difference, I guarantee it’ll have an impact. On a few rare occasions readers of my first book let me know it changed the way they parent or educate and how that’s impacted their lives. These communications are the sort of wealth I’d never believed possible. Utterly priceless.

Some days I like to imagine a world where we love our writers and artists and scientists and volunteers with the same passion we show celebrities. A girl can dream.

Alejandro Mallea's flickr photostream

Alejandro Mallea’s flickr photostream

“The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats.”

Dorothy Parker

A Free Guide to Being Human

fun expert, make life fun, fun at work,

This volume should really be titled A Guide to Being Human. I recommend you read only a page or two at a time. Let it sink in. Apply it. Revel in it.

It’s authored by game designer and deep fun theorist Bernie DeKoven. I got the chance to interview Bernie last year and immediately found myself wishing he were my next door neighbor. (I still do.) For 40-something years Bernie has been promoting playfulness. He was instrumental in the New Games movement and a pioneer in computer game design. He’s developed games for the likes of Lego, Ideal Toy Company, Mattel Toys, and Children’s Television Workshop. He’s collected little-known games, created new ones, researched the value of fun, and organized all sorts of play events.

The book is actually titled A Playful Path and it’s jam-packed with awesomeness. It’s made up of tools and ideas to inspire the possibility-building, wide-open glory of playfulness. DeKoven writes,

Fun is at the heart of things—of things like family, marriage, happiness, peace, community, health; things like science and art, math and literature; like thinking and imagining, inventing and pretending.

Sure, the playful path can enhance relationships, advance careers, and  promote health. It can also help us deepen into who we truly are, beyond the limits of rules and score-keeping. As DeKoven calls it, becoming “embiggened.”

For adults, following a playful path is a practice, something you put into practice, and then practice some more. When you were a kid, it wasn’t a practice. It was what you did, always. You had to be reminded not to be playful. And you were. O, yes, you were. But now that you have become what you, as a kid, called “an adult,” you find that play is something you have to remind yourself to do, playful is something you have to allow yourself to be.

And once you again take up that playful path you knew so well, you discover that it’s different, you’re different. You can play much more deeply than you could before. You are stronger, you understand more, you have more power, better toys. You discover that you, as a playful being, can choose a different way of being. A way of being as large as life. A way of being you, infinitely.

Written in short one to two page segments, A Playful Path is perfect to read on an as-needed basis, sort of an antidote to all the not-fun that drags us down.  A Playful Path is an entertaining book. It’s also wise, true, and entirely useful. Just like play. Get your copy in paperback or as a free e-book.

For more Bernie in your life you can keep up with him on G+ and Facebook, stay current with his blog. and read MIT Press’ re-release of his groundbreaking book, The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. Oh, and be sure to bookmark his collection of games!

Bernie DeKoven, A Playful Path,

Play is how we have learned to learn. Instructions? We don’t need no stinkin’ instructions.  Bernie DeKoven

It’s About Reading For Pleasure

One week during the summer I was twelve, I had a crisis.

I ran out of library books.

Sure I rode my bike, went swimming with friends, and listened to music trying to figure out what the lyrics meant but I also indulged in hours of reading every day. Books transported me. My mother would call me to dinner and I’d look up, astonished to find I wasn’t a wolf on the tundra but a girl in shorts lying on the carpet. Or someone would knock on the bathroom door and I’d remember that I was soaking in the tub, not eluding soldiers in a medieval battle.

My parents supported reading, but they had no problem saying “get your nose out of that book and go outside.” They didn’t take us to the library more than two or three times a month, so the stack of books each of us brought home had to last.

When I realized I was bookless, I turned in desperation to a volume my older sister read as a class requirement. It had tiny print and a not-too-inspiring title, The Scarlet Letter. “It’s too hard,” she told me. “It’s a classic.”

I didn’t know “classic” meant it was good for me, like a bitter vitamin tablet. I insisted I was out of other options.

I promptly fell into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words. They were exquisite in a way I’d never experienced, centered on the inner life and all its convolutions, something I already knew well but didn’t have the sophistication to express. I wasn’t aware such books existed. Instead of racing through it, as I did with every other book, I savored it. It felt as if I could run my fingers over the page and feel the texture of shame and longing. When I finished I was newly in love with the idea of classics, so I got books by Charles Dickens out of the library. I worked my way through two of them that summer although they didn’t live up to my great expectations. I thought Dickens droned and was nothing like Hawthorne.

Several years later I had to read The Scarlet Letter for English class. Everyone grumbled when assigned more pages to read. Those piercing insights, when listed in bullet points on the board, didn’t sink into my heart. Lectures and assignments obscured the book’s beauty. I didn’t read it with a cloak thrown over my head or the prick of a rose thorn in my skin. It lay dead, like a victim on the autopsy table.

Then I realized that my love of books had developed entirely outside of the classroom. I’d never really fallen in love with any of the books assigned in school, although the ones our teachers read aloud after recess, a few pages a day or an entire chapter on special days, still stood out in my mind. Reading, for me, was about pleasure. It was more than a habit, it was an integral part of my being. The books I read helped form my outlook and character. I dare say that many of us, if we look back, will find that favorite books from childhood have a surprising link to who we are today.

If I could, I’d reclaim reading for all of us, from earliest childhood on, as pleasure first and foremost. Turning to the written word for information and edification then becomes a pleasure too.