March 31, 2017
Here are a few of my favorite reads from March, along with my book cover illustrations:
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. A 16-year-old Japanese girl, Nao, fills a diary with words from her “last days on earth.” She plans to commit suicide, but first wants to tell the story of her 104-year-old grandmother, a Zen nun-writer-anarchist-feminist. As her story unfolds, we learn about how Nao is tortured and bullied at her school, her father’s failed suicide attempts, and her summer of healing at her grandmother’s temple.
Across the ocean, Ruth, a novelist with writer’s block, discovers the diary in a plastic bag washed up on the beach of her British Columbia island home. Also in the bag are letters written in French and a vintage Seiko watch, which turn out to be the effects of Nao’s great uncle, a philosophy student and kamikaze pilot who died on a WWII mission. Ruth and her husband speculate that the diary floated to their shores after Japan’s great earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
As Ruth reads the diary, she becomes concerned about Nao’s fate. Following up clues from the diary pages, Ruth attempts to track down Nao or her family. Is Nao still alive?
The story unfolds in layers that echo with karmic connection. Nao is bullied by some horrific classmates and teachers, and we learn that her great uncle was also bullied in the military. Nao’s father hangs on to life by studying philosophy, and his uncle was also a philosophy student. A kamikaze pilot is a suicide bomber, but we learn that Nao’s great uncle had decided to crash into the waves instead of killing people whom he did not see as enemies. Nao’s father and Nao are both preoccupied with suicide plans, but so far had not succumbed. Lives of “wasting time,” “killing time,” searching for “lost time,” sitting zazen to enter the “now” completely — the novel is a meditation on time and quantum physics and family ties across the years.
Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps by Jonathan Arlan. This book is a travelogue about Arlan’s long-distance hike along Europe’s Grand Randonnee 5 (GR5) from Geneva, Switzerland to Nice, France. This 400+mile trail is familiar to French hikers and Europeans, but is not as well-known to Americans. The trail traverses mountain landscapes and passes through towns and villages, so Arlan stayed in a mix of hotels and remote hiker refuges.
I like to indulge in virtual travels like Arlan’s and imagine myself making a long-distance trek one day. I’ve read several books about hiking the famous Camino de Santiago across Spain, as well as some books about hiking in Japan. Most seem to be journals about people met on the trail, and Arlan’s book follows this pattern. His is not a solitary trek, as he seems to find no shortages of hiking buddies along the trail. He doesn’t really articulate why he has taken this hike; it serves to satisfy his wanderlust — at least temporarily. I am not sure why I am drawn to the idea of a long-distance hiking challenge either, but it seems a worthy endeavor not needing fixed benefits. Arlan says, “It was pleasant to be alone in my own room, half asleep, thinking about how the only thing I needed to do the next day, and the day after, and many days after that, was to wake up, walk, and sleep. Life hadn’t been this simple in ages.”
Birds, Art, Life: A year of Observation by Kyo Maclear
Maclear is a writer living in Toronto. She is caught in a kind of lull, waiting, experiencing anticipatory grief as her elderly father suffers health crises and nears death. In order to help herself stay engaged and connected at this stage of her life, Maclear takes on a project of tagging along with a musician and birder on his urban birdwatching jaunts. This book uses birding as a launching point to find meaning in life.
Here are a sampling of the lessons drawn from Maclean’s year of observing birds:
“Make leeway for chance. Sometimes you don’t want to be driven to a point. Sometimes it is exactly when we lose our bearings or take a detour that life really gets going.”
“Birding is more than an activity. It’s a disposition. Keep your eyes and ears and mind open to beauty. Look for birds in unprecious places, beside fast-food restaurants, and in mall parking lots.”
“Just a nice stroll through a park is enough. Walk everywhere in the city and you will find you don’t need to traipse up Everest or schlep to Kalamazoo to go places.”
My favorite lessons were Maclean’s meditations on small things: “I like smallness,” she says. “I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny.” She goes on to say, “In my experience, a work’s external smallness can lead somewhere internally large.”
Remember, “[I]f you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”
Beartown by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith
I liked Backman’s previous novel, A Man Called Ove, and so Beartown caught my eye when I was browsing a list of advanced reader copies. The book will be published in late April 2017. A small town’s junior hockey team is on its way to the semi-finals, and it seems that everyone — parents, sponsors, students, and spectators — peg their dreams for a revitalized town on a championship team. The town has suffered economic setbacks, and a winning team would attract investors and maybe even a new hockey academy.
It didn’t hurt that Kevin, a hockey superstar from age 4, was the natural leader of a strong junior team. But what does it mean for a kid to know only winning? He has become what he has been told he is — a star, a winner — and because the town believes they need him, they turn a blind eye to his transgressions.
The old coach wants to develop well-rounded players, but the board is gearing up to replace him with the junior coach who values only winning: “[The old coach,] Sune wanted to keep all the players in their own age group as long as possible, so that they would have time to work on their weaknesses and form rounded, focused teams without any shortcomings. [The younger coach] David thought that attitude only led to the creation of teams where no one was exceptional. Sune believed that a player who was allowed to play with older players would play only to his strengths, and David agreed — he just couldn’t see the problem with that.”
Divergent coaching styles are not the only source of tensions in this town. The general manager is reluctant to implement the hockey board’s wishes, some of the best players on the team bully other students, kids keep secrets from their parents, there are class differences among citizens. How much wrong-doing do you accept “for the good of the team”?
The tensions rise to the breaking point when Kevin is accused of raping a younger student just hours before the semi-final game. Kevin misses the game. The townspeople are livid. “Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world become much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.”
This seemingly simple story about hockey is well nuanced and layered. How does a culture of winning foster a culture of silence? What makes a team? Who is a “good” team player? What is demanded of parents in raising children despite fears, dreams, and expectations? What is important in life?
“What can the sport give us? We devote our whole lives to it, and what can we hope to get, at best? A few moments . . . a few victories, a few seconds when we feel bigger than we really are, a few isolated opportunities to imagine that we’re . . . immortal. And it’s a lie. It really isn’t important.”
“Hockey is just a silly little game. We devote year after year to it without ever really hoping to get anything in return. We burn and bleed and cry, fully aware that the most the sport can give us, in the very best scenario, is incomprehensibly meager and worthless: just a few isolated moment of transcendence. That’s all.
But what the hell else is life made of?”
I was impressed with how this story about a hockey town addresses the big questions about life.
February 28, 2017
This is the second post in my Book Cover Project, and it highlights four of the best books I read during the month of February:
News of the World by Paulette Jiles. I have been reading books featuring Texas in anticipation of a planned trip there in late April. News of the World by Paulette Jiles takes place in post-Civil War Texas. Captain Kidd, a 71-year old widow makes his living as an itinerant performer who gives readings from newspapers in small towns throughout northern Texas. He is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young 10-year-old girl, Johanna Leonberger, to her relatives near San Antonio. Four years earlier, Johanna was captured by the Kiowa in a raid that killed her parents.
The Captain and Johanna encounter many dangers during the 400-mile journey — lawlessness, a corrupt Reconstructionist government, continuing Indian raids. The trail narrative itself is compelling, but the author also gives a sympathetic portrayal of the challenges facing those whites who were “rescued” from their Indian captors. “The Captain never did understand what had caused such a total change in a little girl from a German household and adopted into a Kiowa one. In a mere four years she completely forgot her birth language and her parents, her people, her religion, her alphabet. She forgot how to use a knife and fork and how to sing European scales. And once she was returned to her own people, nothing came back. She remained at heart a Kiowa to the end of her days.”
“She never learned to value those things that white people valued. The greatest pride of the Kiowa was to do without, to make use of anything at hand; they were almost vain of their ability to go without water, food, and shelter. Life was not safe and nothing could make it so, neither fashionable dresses nor bank accounts.”
The Nest by Cynthia D’Arpix Sweeney. This is a novel about four adult siblings who are each anticipating coming into an inheritance from their father, the “nest,” when the youngest sister turns forty. Although their parents had taught them not to count their chickens before they hatched, the siblings have watched the small nest egg grow to a considerable amount, and each counted on the money to relieve financial stresses due to choices they made in their adult lives. For example, the youngest sister was anticipating using the money to fund her daughters’ college educations. One of the brothers had secretly taken an equity loan against a cherished vacation property in order to keep his business afloat.
Then disaster strikes few months before coming into their inheritance. One of the brothers, driving drunk, is in a car accident that severely injures his passenger — a young woman caterer with whom he was about to have an illicit liaison. In order to settle with the young woman, the siblings’ mother and trustee uses $2 million from the “nest,” leaving just a modest remainder for distribution. This novel depicts the family’s clashes and adjustments arising from the loss of their “nest.”
Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford by Kim Stafford. The poet William Stafford died in 1993, naming his son Kim his literary executor. This memoir lovingly celebrates the life and poems of the elder Stafford. It touches on Stafford’s childhood in Kansas: “The Great Depression could be rich for a poor family that loved to read and talk. Without prosperity, they were free to revel in the local and the everyday.” And it reveals how Stafford’s life was shaped by his pacifism — he was a conscientious objector in WWII, which was not at all a popular or understood stand: “. . . I absorbed his clarity about aggression: it’s never okay. Nor, if you are alert, should it be necessary. Violence signals a failure of imagination.”
William Stafford exemplified “loyalty to the self.” He strove to be authentic to his visions, asking, ‘What is my particular calling among the quiet voices of the world?” His son described him as follows: “He was objector, writer, wanderer — a three-way isolation by choice.” And, “It was how he thought — taking an idea, a conversation, a class, a child — or a poem — to the brink of difficult truth.”
I was most impressed by the descriptions of William Stafford’s writing practice. He got up at 4:00 a.m. every morning to write for three hours before the rest of the household awoke. Kim says, “You have a family you love. You have a job you do and some days love, if you are lucky. But you also have an inner life, a quiet voice, a realm of intuition and expression that may be largely dormant through your busy days. In my father’s practice, this inner life happened first.”
“Taken as a whole, the daily writing constitutes a symposium with the self, where questions of ethics, aesthetics, education, aggression, and creation are posed, debated, and then practiced in poetic form by one intelligence — my father’s academy of one. The writing practice reveals the critical and intuitive faculties of a fertile mind in conversation with itself almost every single day for over forty years. Out of this meditative practice, what he called his ‘compost pile,’ his poems appeared at a rate of about one a day. . . .
The daily writing was not a diary; what might be considered important events by others were nothing to him. Rather, the daily writing is a realm for the timeless.”
I found the example of such a disciplined and obviously rewarding writing practice to be an inspiration. I finished the book wondering if I could commit to a daily art practice of my own.
I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck, from the writings of James Baldwin. When James Baldwin died he left notes for an unfinished book project, which he called “Remember This House,” about three Black leaders — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. — who were murdered before they turned 40 years old. Peck received permission from the estate of Baldwin to use these and other of his texts to direct a movie (which I have not yet seen).
Baldwin saw his role as one of witness to the lives and deaths of his Black brethren. He said:
“I was not, for example, a Black Muslim,
in the same way, though for different reasons,
that I never became a Black Panther:
because I did not believe that
all white people were devils,
that I did not want
young black people to believe that.
I was not a member of any Christian congregation
because I knew that they had not heard
and did not live by the commandment
‘love one another as I love you,’
and I was not a member of the NAACP
because in the North, where I grew up,
the NAACP was fatally entangled
with black class distinctions,
or illusions of the same,
which repelled a shoe-shine boy like me.
I did not have to deal with
the criminal state of Mississippi,
hour by hour and day by day,
to say nothing of night after night.
I did not have to sweat cold sweat after decisions
involving hundreds of thousands of lives.
I was not responsible for raising money,
for deciding how to use it.
I was not responsible for strategy controlling
prayer meetings, marches, petitions,
voting registration drives.
I saw the sheriffs, the deputies, the storm troopers
more or less in passing.
I was never in town to stay.
This was sometimes hard on my morale,
but I had to accept, as time wore on,
that part of my responsibility — as a writer —
was to move as largely and as freely as possible,
to write the story, and to get it out.”
There is so much in Baldwin’s writings that illuminate the state of our current world. Some progress against racism has been made, but not nearly enough. Baldwin says, “. . . when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.”
This is how he sees white Americans: “I’m sure they have nothing whatever against Negroes, but that’s really not the question, you know. The question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is the price we pay for segregation. You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know.” He sees this moral apathy as the “death of the heart.”
“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him. . . . If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.”
This is still a question for our time, I believe. The slogan “America First” carries with it overtones of American superiority — the outdated, erroneous beliefs that white Christian males are better than immigrants, minority citizens, women, the “others.” What is at the root of the need for that feeling of superiority? This book asks us to ponder that question.
January 31, 2017
I mentioned in my January 4th blog post about The Book of Joy that I would paint copies of the book covers from some of my favorite reads in 2017. Some of my paintings are adaptations rather than true copies. Here are the covers from the best books from among those I read in January:
Sun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets by Tyler Nordgren. I wrote about this book in my January 5th blog post and how it heightened my anticipation for the total solar eclipse on August 21st of this year.
Coast Range: A Collection from the Pacific Edge by Nick Neely. I liked this book of essays and Neely’s musings about collecting and collections. He says, “. . . I had the collection bug: the impulse to hold, and possibly hoard, the world.” His objects are familiar to my landscape — salmon, madrone trees, beaches, rivers draining into the Pacific Ocean.
Mink River by Brian Doyle. I liked this novel so much that I am reading more of his works.
Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin and Richard Brown. The photos of Tasha Tudor in her garden are luscious. I love the little watercolor vignettes, too. This book takes us through the four seasons of the year.
One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer. I love this book because one of the protagonists is 62-year-old Aunt Edna who for the past twenty years was the live-in caregiver for her ill mother and an elementary lunch lady AND an artist. She painted only one subject over and over — chairs. “She was still painting chairs and only chairs . . .” She painted for herself: “Painting isn’t for bill paying. Painting is for painting.”
The story takes place after the death of Edna’s mother. The clan gathers and her niece Sarah — who is experiencing a life crisis of her own — decides to stay on with Edna while she closes up her mother’s estate. Sarah is a successful commercial artist of Christmas ornaments, but she regrets not following her dream to become a fine artist. Edna’s advice to Sarah is, “It’s the only important thing, the work itself. I want you to stop worrying about what your pictures look like for now. You should just enjoy holding the brush or pencil in your hand, the time spent. . . . you have to like the moment of working or your work will become valueless.”
I love how art-related musings and philosophy intermingle with the story. And how the subject of a painting, like a chair, can evoke metaphors about life. The characters are quirky and flawed, family dynamics are stressed, and yet this is a warm-hearted novel.