Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection (1 of 2), AJ Jacobs

For the last ten minutes, I’ve been sitting here wondering whether it’s ironic that I picked up this book about AJ Jacobs’ quest to become the healthiest man alive in the same week that I jacked up my shoulder at the gym trying to do a somersault and discovered that I’d gained three pounds. I’ll be honest, Alanis Morisette’s song “Ironic,” listened to repeatedly at an impressionable age, has blasted the true definition of the word right out of my comprehension. Although the word is technically within my knowledge base, it’s like one of those tricky logic puzzles that, for whatever reasons, remains right outside the circle of understanding.  And so I sit here, ice packs strapped to my back, knowing it’s probably just a really irritating coincidence…and on top of that, one that makes me feel stupid.

Or maybe I’m just cranky because my home-brew combination of pain meds, bags of ice, and massage sticking aren’t having the desired effect. That’s probably it. There are very few things I enjoy when I feel this way, and reading about someone else’s quest for perfect health is right at the top of the list. Even if that person is AJ Jacobs (I reviewed his Year of Living Biblically a while back), a self-confessed neurotic spaz of a man who is onto his third life-altering challenge in this most recent book (the first being to read the Encyclopedia Britannica in its entirety, and the second being his year of living out the Bible in the most literal way possible…so, Mind, Spirit, and now Body).

Though honestly, if anyone were going to undertake such a health odyssey, I’m glad it’s him. He’s a self-made expert, and although he has access to sources I don’t, I feel a sort of kinship with his brand of crazy. Instead of coming from a perspective of long-term, successful healthy living, he samples a bit of everything, trying to best his natural laziness and desire to suck down chalupas with a spectrum of diets and exercise fads available to the general public.

Of course, half way through his experience, even I can tell that he’s had the most success from going to the gym regularly and eating a diet that’s more plant-heavy than carboloaded, but it’s still amusing to hear about his forays into the world of pole dancing classes and paleo fitness in Central Park. Plus, he covers topics we all know we should learn more about (the best sleep patterns, good skin care, detoxing the home) without coming off like a preachy jerk. Does he get swept away in some of his successes? Of course. But who doesn’t? Who among us has not acted like a self-righteous blabbermouth when we discover some secret formula that improves our health? We all think we have the answers at some point or another – Jacobs is just especially good at capturing those experiences on paper.

I’m especially looking forward to convincing my husband that what Jacobs says I need  for optimum health as a writer is a treadmill desk…

Read more about AJ Jacobs here.

Free Four, Veronica Roth

I’m cheating a little this week after inspiration struck me about what I’m going to do here in November when I’m simultaneously trying to finish a manuscript for December 1 and complete NaNoWriMo’s fifty thousand word challenge. I was starting to panic because I’m heading into a stretch of (fantastic but time-consuming) vacations, and by the time those trips wrap up, it will practically be one of my favorite times of year. That’s right! I actually like trying to cram the whole novel-writing experience into thirty days (well, actually, I like to cram the whole novel-writing experience into twenty-five days or less because I need to take a minimum of one day off a week plus Thanksgiving). It’s been five years since I tried to do both that and finish a paid project though, and now that I have such a wonderful community of readers here, I don’t want to abandon you all for a month because of other commitments.

That being said, I was feeling stressed about how to make it all happen (without losing my mind) when I picked up Free Four, a chapter Roth wrote to accompany her first book, Divergent, written from the perspective of a supporting character. Reading it was a the perfect blend of short story and fan fic – the characters and scenario were familiar and the format was brief – just the ticket for getting me through crunch time. Unfortunately, not many authors are as obliging as Roth was in providing readers with inexpensive (or free) ficlets like this one, so during November, I’ll be choosing from a combination of short stories, fan fiction (if I find something excellent), and children’s books. I’m looking forward to it, even if it does mean I should try to get through some of the longer books on my stack before then…

Not today though! Today, I’m enjoying the fact that the author of Divergent and Insurgent decided to share some of her “research” with fans for practically nothing. It’s almost as though she understands that some of us can’t get enough of the characters we love, and that during the agonizing waiting period between books, it’s downright wonderful to throw a little sideline project like this our way.

I understand why all authors don’t do this – some are too serious, others too famous (read: busy), others are probably just smug jerks who couldn’t care less about the people reading their books – however, it takes all kinds to write great literature, so I don’t take it personally if it isn’t a writer’s “thing” to do something like this. That being said, it’s wonderful when authors are in touch with what their audiences want and genuinely enjoy sharing something extra with them. Neil Gaiman has done it, usually under the guise of some fantastic project like the UK’s World Book Day or a little poem written for a friend that turns into something bigger when the right people start asking questions. Sherman Alexie often posts short stories on his website or connects to free versions in magazines. Even authors like JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer have seen the benefits (financially and in terms of good will) generated by publishing add-on stories, both in print and online.

Of course, publishing is a business, and the writers who do this sort of thing expect that it will reflect well on them and generate better sales, but I’m fine with that. I’m happy to give my money to people who respect and engage with their audience. Even when I’m standing in line to get a book signed after a reading or interview and realize I have nothing whatsoever to say when it’s my turn, I still enjoy the experience of connection that comes with hearing those authors speak about their process. It’s not about knowing them personally though – it’s about being a part of something bigger and more thrilling than myself.

For example, I’m a Rockies fan, but I’ve never been to a game at Coors Field. When, on the rare occasion, I have the opportunity to see them play, I’m inevitably surrounded by a crowd of people cheering for another team. It’s disappointing to be there, especially when the other team scores, the stadium erupts and the guy in front of you turns around to high-five you before looking at your shirt and turning away to share his joy with someone else. (And don’t even get me started on how awful it is  when I cheer for my team and the rest of the stadium is completely silent. It’s like yelling into a really ominous vacuum.) It’s not so much about the winning and losing though, because I have no control over that – it’s about getting to share the experience with other people who are excited about the same thing.

It’s why we line up to see midnight releases of our favorite movies, spend a chunk of money to go to cons, or have online social networks dedicated to just about every conceivable interest. As people and consumers, we like to share, and when authors give back with something like Free Four, it’s special. It gives us a little insight into who he or she is as a person, but much more importantly, it reminds us that the creator is excited about where the story’s headed too.

Learn more about Veronica Roth here.

A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, (part the second), Mark Shriver

EDIT: For all my audiobook fans out there, I have a special treat. Macmillan Audio has provided me with a sample of A Good Man, as read by the author. I hope you enjoy this preview. It’s from one of my favorite moments in the book.

The first half of this book is sheer joy. Mark Shriver’s recollections about his father as both a man and as a force for peace, justice and equality are soaked in love. His respect and awe of his father, his struggle to try to become even close to as good a man, his frustrations with himself for constantly falling short of the example set for him – they are both familiar and heartbreaking.

The second half of the book is even more moving. It deals with Sarge Shriver’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, of how he approached the disease with the grace, faith, and love he had exhibited his entire life, and how it was his son who fell apart watching this terrible illness rob him of a great man and father. In a moment of clarity during the middle years of his father’s decline, when the author was struggling with anger, guilt, and grief on an hourly basis, he asked Sarge how he was handling losing his mind. His father responded, “I’m doing the best I can with what God gave me,” and these were the words that returned to Shriver often in the years that followed.

At times, I feel like I’m part of the first generation to watch my parents handle the complicated care of their own parents, although I can’t imagine that’s really true. Certainly, life expectancy is longer now, and better medical care means people are able to live for longer than they have in the past, so maybe, even if this situation isn’t really new, it’s at least different. A few years ago, I worked with two authors on a book dealing with the issues around aging parentsIt was a project I pushed hard to do because at that time, my parents, both only children, were deep in the throes of handling all the care for my grandparents, two of whom had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

On September 11, 2001, on my second day of college, my parents hadn’t even heard about the terrorists attacks when I called them from my dorm in Boston; they were busy dealing with an unexpected and terrible complication in the lives of my father’s parents. I remember that phone call vividly still – how alone I felt, how heartbroken I was for my parents, for my country – the devastation in my family was immense, yet there was no room to talk about it because the world was falling down around us. I remember the fear and anger wedging themselves into my heart in the weeks that followed, and I didn’t really understand why.

In March of 2002, my father’s father died after a relatively peaceful decline. I’m sure it wasn’t peaceful for my parents, but compared to the rage my mother’s father felt in the following five years, my grandpa Clyde’s gentle loss to his old memories seemed like a blessing. I never once went to see him in the assisted living facility where he had moved that fall, and I arrived home from spring break hours before he died. I never got to see him or say goodbye. To this day, I regret the young, selfish actions that kept me from being there for him and for my parents. It is something I can never take back or change, but which, over the last ten years, I have tried to remedy by writing letters to my other grandparents and coming to see them as often as I can.

In reading Shriver’s account of his own struggles, I found myself crying again and again thinking of how difficult and beautiful these years have been for my own parents. They have never once shirked their duty, rarely taken vacations, repeated over and over that the challenges they have faced are part of what it means to be a part of a family. Nevertheless, like Shriver, I am more often angry than sympathetic, especially when visiting with the parents of my friends and seeing how different their lives have been. My parents had one week of (relative) peace between the day I left home and the day they fully took charge of their parents’ care, and it gives me a pain I can’t describe that they have been so compassionate yet suffered so much.

A year ago, almost ten years exactly after my grandparents were all moved into assisted living, my mother’s mother, one of the true good women of the world, passed away. Due to scheduling and flight prices, we chose to hold her memorial service three weeks after her death. This was hard on my parents, and especially my mother, who wanted to say goodbye, I think because, as a minister, a part of her knew that she couldn’t even begin to plumb the depths of her sorrow until she’d done that.

I didn’t want that though. I wanted the time, and I came a week earlier than my husband so that I could help my mother plan the service. I had been preparing for months; I had put a poem aside, and a hymn I wanted to be sung. My grandmother had been so influential in raising me, and in our family, I don’t believe there is any blood relationship so cherished as that between my mother and grandmother. I didn’t want my grandmother to have the kind of services my grandfathers had – not that they were bad, but they were so brief, and for such remarkable men! They weren’t enough for me, and I have been saying goodbye to them in my own ways many times since then.

I wanted my grandmother’s memorial to celebrate not just her (and trust me, she was a person to be celebrated and missed) but my parents too. For a decade, they had given of themselves completely, and even if they were too tired and sad to realize that they deserved it, I knew. I knew my brother, in his intensely private way, needed it too. Sitting next to him at the service, I felt his grief and mine overlapping. I don’t think I remember, ever in my life, the two of us crying together, but such was the power of one wonderful person. The memory of her life was enough to reach out and bring us just that much closer to each other.

This was the experience that I believe Mark Shriver had on the day of his own father’s funeral. That experience opened something up that allowed him to see his father, not just through his own eyes, but through the eyes of all the people Sarge Shriver had touched. He was able to lay down, at least for a moment, the burdens that come with the disease, with the loss, with the overwhelming and exhausting grief in order to celebrate the man himself, and the effect of such a person on his own imperfect heart.

Mark Shriver does not have a website, but information about him can be found online.

A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, (part the first), Mark Shriver

I’m really not a biography person. I think I probably got away without reading a single one from cover to cover my entire school career (and this was before the internet existed for home use…or at least for use in my home…so that’s a substantial feat). I certainly don’t pick them up when I’m browsing in bookstores or online. And although biography is related to memoir, I see it mostly as memoir’s annoyingly know-it-all older sister, and who has time to listen to her?! There are adventures to be had, new lands to visit, fictional romances to obsess over!

Enter an old, long forgotten weakness. While The Daily Show and The Colbert Report usually stick to interviewing politicians and celebrities I’m not much interested in, the format and the hosts have the ability to make even the worst interviewee entertaining. In the last few years though, I’ve moved away from getting news from my favorite Comedy Central team (mostly because it’s depressing that Jon Stewart looks so old these days…and also because Tivo is usually full), so when I caught an episode last week where Colbert was interviewing Mark Shriver (son of a Kennedy and a Shriver) about the book he wrote after his father’s death, AND it actually sounded like something I wanted to read, I was shocked.

This was not just a biography either. This was a biography about a politician. For the record, I prefer my politics served up by Aaron Sorkin (as in, with a twist of snark), but for this book, I’ve made an exception. Possibly it has something to do with the fact that Sarge Shriver was the founder of the Peace Corps, instrumental in the War on Poverty, and a tireless advocate for social justice throughout his entire life.

We went to the National Press Club in Washington, where a decent-sized crowd had assembled to hear Dad’s [presidential run] withdrawal speech. He smiled throughout it, but its content, I realized long after, was startling. I obviously didn’t understand at the time how what he said then would inform my quest during the days after his death:

“What we need now is not the false security of beguiling promises or befogging rhetoric, not empty and simplistic slogans. We need the spiritual confidence borne of confronting openly and honestly the challenges— the terrors in the nights— we all know, we all must face. One of those challenges is the continuing need to empower the powerless.” (loc 552)

As we near the presidential election in the US, I have been forced to acknowledge yet again that whether I choose to know about policy, or about the people dictating policy, it has a profound effect on me, the people I care about, strangers, and the way the rest of the world views my country. And while it is impossible, as a member of the human race, not to go through stages of disillusionment with government, some years are much harder than others. I happen to believe we’re going through a particular low point right now because of the extraordinary divide that exists between the Democrats and the Republicans, the left and the right, the ninety-nine percent and the one. Healthy governments thrive on argument and compromise, and while we have perfected one, we’ve neglected the other.

Finding a book like this, about a man who dedicated his life to selfless, passionate work through difficult government channels, is helping to restore some personal equilibrium in the onslaught of campaign mud-slinging.

“Compassion is the ideal,” he maintained in a speech at the World’s Fair in 1964, “that must illuminate, from the very center, all our efforts to bring a better life to our world, within our own country, and in the farthest reaches of the planet.” As he went on to say: “It is only with this compassion that man can look upon man— through the mask of many colors, through the vestments of many religions, through the dust of poverty, or through the disfigurement of disease— and recognize his brother.”

But Dad knew that this was not easy. Even for himself. (loc 837)

I’m also drawn to the personal element of this book. The perspective of Mark Shriver, one of five children born into an insanely powerful (and tragic) political family, is that of a son both grieving and curious. Despite the tremendous relationship he had with his father in life, he makes it clear that there was much he didn’t know, understand, or appreciate about the man until after his death.

Then I thought about our kids and how, just the day before, I had watched them eat breakfast with their usual gusto. When my eleven-year-old son Tommy got up and took his plates to the sink and started washing them, I almost lost it, remembering how, two years prior, Tommy had watched Dad, Alzheimer-stricken and hobbled, grab his own cake plate after the party for his ninety-third birthday, take it to the sink, and clean it. Tommy had looked at me, licked the icing off his last forkful, and followed Dad to the sink with his plate. Tommy had observed, at a very young age, what a good man Dad was, right down to the smallest detail of etiquette. 

The great man is recognized for his civic achievements. The good man can be great in that arena, too, but even greater at home, on the sidewalk, at the diner, with his grandkids, at the supermarket, at church— wherever human interaction requires integrity and compassion. Dad was good because he was great in the smaller, unseen corners of life. He insisted on greatness in every facet of the daily grind. (loc 207)

I look forward to finishing this book for Thursday and being able to share more about a man who strove to leave a meaningful legacy both in his own home and around the world.

Discount Armageddon, Seanan McGuire

When I was in elementary school, I used to win the Perfect Attendance award every year (except for one memorable year when I got the Near Perfect Attendance award for no other reason than that there had been no student with perfect attendance and I suppose I came the closest, having only missed two days…). I honestly don’t know if other schools even  had such a thing, but mine did, and I was the one who got it. Not because I wasn’t sick – I was an undiagnosed lactose intolerant for almost twenty years, and we were a big milk-drinking family – but because I was sick so often that I assumed that was how everyone felt. If I’d stayed home every time I had a stomach ache, I would probably be finishing up the eighth grade this year.

I never told my parents about my stomach problems because I didn’t want to complain about something so obviously run of the mill (isn’t a child’s perspective a strange thing?), so I suffered unnecessarily for years. The thing is, that almost daily suffering gave me a high thresh hold for what I could ethically consider a “stay home illness,” and consequently, I almost never missed school. (For the record, you could keep your perfect attendance record if you went into school in the morning and were sent home sick, and that did happen to me my share of times because I was so reluctant to say anything in the morning).

Even on the days when there was plenty of evidence that I deserved to stay home, I always felt guilty doing it. Was I sick enough? Was I exaggerating the symptoms? Could I tough it out for at least a few hours? Often by the time my parents came upstairs to see why I wasn’t following my rigid morning routine (I came downstairs dressed, packed up, with bed made every morning within the span of the same few minutes…), I had worked myself into hysterics trying to decide whether or not I was legitimately sick.

This is not an issue that has eased up much for me as I’ve gotten older. Now that I work from home, it’s easier to say, write from bed if I’m not feeling well, but when I was teaching, I would go to great lengths not to miss work and inconvenience my classroom. When I had swine flu, I went to work three of the seven days I was unbearably sick (to be fair, I didn’t know what I had until I had to go to the hospital that third night). And this week, when my diet has consisted mainly of Gatorade and apple sauce, I still thought it was necessary to go out for a run to prove that I was doing something (turns out what I was doing was ensuring a long, painful walk back to the car).

Fortunately, over the years, one of my best friends has been trying to break me of this ridiculous anxiety. She is (self-proclaimed) one of the laziest people in existence, and she never, ever goes to work if she feels even a tickle in the back of her throat. She says life is too short and she’s paid too little to suffer like that. Her solution to any illness is curling up in bed with a good book, and she stays there until she’s feeling better or has finished whatever series she’s gotten sucked into…

So for once, I decided to take her advice. I canceled all my appointments, put my computer and my phone away, and crawled under the covers with Discount Armageddon, because really, what better way is there to pass the uncomfortable hours than with frothy urban fantasy? I have to tell you, I think my friend is on to something. I don’t think I looked up for about five hours, and when I finally finished, I actually didn’t feel quite as bad as I had before. I felt sort of…relaxed. Like I wanted the next book in the series to be written already (it’s not). Like maybe I would try one of her other novels if I wasn’t feeling well the next day…and like maybe I had wasted a lot of good sick days…

Find out more about Seanan McGuire here.

Emil and the Detectives, Erich Kästner translated by May Massee

It’s rare that I read a book that I like and have little to say about it, but that’s what I’m struggling with after reading Emil. Many of you may know this already from your own childhood (although I’d never heard of this book before March of this year), but Emil and the Detectives is a classic children’s novel; the copy I read actually belonged to my husband when he was young. A few months ago, he pulled it out for me when I was complaining that I didn’t know what to read next (he also grabbed Don Quixote, which I have zero desire to read having been subjected to many portions of it in school, but he now keeps it on the bedside table and finds the antics uproariously funny). He promised I would like Emil, that it would delight me, and he was shocked that I had never read it before. In fact, I think he was well pleased with himself for coming up with such a book for me to review.

So being the amazing wife that I am, I tucked it back on the shelf and told myself I’d get around to it eventually, ignoring that fact that he has recommended books to me maybe ten times in the six plus years we’ve known each other. Fortunately, he knows me well enough to realize that I have to be in the right mood to appreciate a book, and I wasn’t there yet. Fast forward to last week. A blogger I follow, a woman named Georgi from Australia, has been working her way through the list of 1001 must read children’s books, and she mentioned that she had Emil on her stack. I had just finished reading it when she posted her own thoughts. (I highly recommend checking out her post, since she gets into some of the more interesting history of it as a banned book, which I wouldn’t have known about it had I not been following her.)

Georgi liked the book more than I did. My husband certainly did as well, since it’s one of the few he remembers clearly from his childhood. I thought it was sweet, and it made me nostalgic for the books of my own younger years, but I had one complaint about the story, and that was the role of the only girl, Emil’s cousin, Pony Hütchen.

Now, I know this book was written in Germany in 1929, and it would have been in no way against the times to write a book with a female character who behaved this way, but the fact that her most exciting role in the story is fetching breakfast for the other children…I just found it galling. I didn’t let it ruin the whole experience for me since I knew it was historically appropriate (and the boys were, at least, a bit cowed by Pony and her bicycle), but I couldn’t get fully into it. And I’m the kind of person who enjoys getting breakfast for others! I couldn’t help but read it and think, I just wouldn’t give this to a young girl to read. It’s the same feeling I got after watching Pixar’s Brave…after all these years of films that moved me to tears, that’s the story you came up with for your first female protagonist? Fail. At least Kästner has history (and a strong cast of free range children) on his side.

In fact, what resonated with me most was how self-sufficient the children were in the story. The parents still held the fears that parents do now, but that didn’t stop them from allowing the boys to get into situation where they needed to rely on their own good sense, as well as those of their peers. My very favorite moment of the book is when Emil talks with his new friend about the situation they’ve gotten themselves into:

“Oh well, the average [parent] is all right, answered the Professor. “It is the most sensible way to be. This way, we don’t lie to them. I’ve promised my parents not to do anything that’s wrong or dangerous. And as long as I keep my word, I can do what I want to. He is a splendid fellow, my father.”

“Simply great!” repeated Emil. “But listen, perhaps it will be dangerous today.”

“Well, then, it’s off with the permission,” admitted the Professor and shrugged his shoulders. “He said that I should always see to it that I behave just as if he were with me. And I’m doing that today.” (p 90)

This attitude of self-reliance, of honor, and of certainty in helping a friend with what’s right – those wonderful traits get lost when as adults, we worry about the terrible things that might befall children instead of focusing our energy on teaching them how to handle themselves. Kästner has managed to write a book full of characters with character, and of that, I heartily approve.

The Shakespeare Series (1-5), Charlaine Harris

Okay, I don’t know what I was thinking, trying to combine reading a series and watching the Olympics. I barely have enough brain power for my paid work during the rest of the year, but this combination was a doozy. I admit that I may have pushed a few deadlines off in order to get through these books while simultaneously watching less popular events like judo, whitewater canoeing, and the marathon (multitasking for the win!).

I actually found that the combination worked well together, although that wasn’t why I chose to read Harris’ oldest series when I did. In fact, I don’t even know what prompted me to buy the first one on my Kindle, although I remember that I did it while waiting for my husband to get out of work. It must have been a blend of having enjoyed her work in the past and having no access to my “to-read” list, but here I am, four days later with five more books read and a fervent wish that my library had a better selection of kindle titles so I didn’t have to slowly drain my wallet 7.99 at a time…

It’s clear that reading her book series from most recent to oldest was a solid choice on my part because Harris’ writing has improved drastically over the years. Her plots have become more nuanced than they are in the Shakespeare books, and she clearly learned to write a subtler heroine. What interested me most though, was that even in these simpler books, she writes a protagonist who is compelling enough to keep me coming back for more. This is no easy feat, especially when the character she’s working with is so damaged to begin with that she exists almost entirely outside of the lives of those in her own small town. Harris goes on to explore the idea of the outsider even more intensely in the Harper Connelly mysteries, and she has finessed both the idea and the genre by the time she starts writing about Sookie Stackhouse.

I haven’t read any of her stand alone novels, so I can’t compare them, but it’s been fascinating for me to see what she does with three female leads. It’s a toss-up whether Lily Bard or Harper is the more damaged heroine, but both of them make Sookie look positively blessed in comparison. Harris clearly is interested in how women, especially women with the odds stacked against them, manage to survive violence and become tough, honorable, and respected. I love this idea, of course, because women’s empowerment is always on the menu for me, but what has moved me after reading this most recent series is how dedicated she’s been to this idea.

In none of her books are her characters in positions of power. They aren’t cops or detectives, and Lily, at least, doesn’t even have a special power to give her an edge in solving the violent and mysterious crimes that happen around her. Of the three, Harper is the only one who is paid to come to examine crime scenes, and even she is often considered a fraud (a lightning strike at fifteen caused her to develop the ability to sense dead bodies and the cause of their death). Without a doubt, Sookie’s innate ability to sense the emotional state of those around her is my favorite twist, but she inhabits a world of vampires and werewolves, whereas the other two women exist in an ordinary world (or as ordinary as the small-town deep South can seem to a Northerner like me).

Lily is the most vulnerable of Harris’ protagonists, but she’s also the one who puts the most effort into being invincible, and I admire her for that. In fact, between reading about her work in strength training and karate, and watching the powerful women at the Olympics, I’ve discovered a renewed desire to become as physically strong as I can. Reading about Bard has reminded me of one of my favorite tenets about reading:

A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.
– Henry David Thoreau

Although Harris’ books surely have their faults, her characters inspire me to want to be more brave, clever, fearless, to be resilient in the face of the worst hardships, and to be kind even when the world has taught me that others won’t always be.

To learn  more about Charlaine Harris, go here.

As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth, Lynne Rae Perkins

In a few weeks, I’m going to become one of the counselors for the high school youth group at my church. I’m not at all sure I’m qualified for this position because I swear indiscriminately, consider candy and wine to be the foundation of the food pyramid, and transform into a curmudgeonly old man when asked about cell phones, Facebook, and Justin Bieber. I often feel exhausted when it comes to finding common ground with this age group, which is strange because one of my passions is finding books I think these no longer children/not yet adults will get excited about.

I think part of the problem is that I don’t really know any teenagers anymore, and in a large anonymous group, they can’t help but be irritating (to be fair, I feel the same way about hipsters, hippies, yuppies, dog-lovers, cyclists etc etc when faced with an unknown hoard…). I’m far enough from my own adolescence that I find it both nostalgic and also stupefying that I made the choices I did, and even the youngest siblings of my friends have graduated from college now. My friends with children have, at the very remotest end, tweens, but more commonly, infants and toddlers.

Now there’s an age group I can get behind. Their behaviors might be extreme, but young children are pretty transparent to me, and I love them for all their stickiness and difficulties.  Teenagers, though, I’m baffled by completely. How do I talk to them? Why do they think I’m so old when I could swear a second ago I was their age? Who let them have smart phones? What could I possibly have to offer? All I can do is keep reminding myself, don’t panic. If they smell your fear, it’s over.

I needed a book that would  remind me of why I loved being a teenager as much as I did. As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth was the perfect choice. Perkins’ young protagonist, Ry, seems ordinary, but as his story unfolds, what makes him special is gently brought to light. This is an adventure story that takes place firmly in reality. There are no high-speed chases, no flying cars, no vampires. He’s just a kid experiencing his first taste of independence; the fortunate part is that we get to see a wonderful new part of him appear in the process.

I kept thinking to myself as I read it, I know this guy. He’s a little forgetful, and sometimes he makes choices that, while not wild and crazy, are just dumb enough to get the story going. He’s sweet and trusting, and the people he chooses to have faith in (strangers!) are good people – flawed adults, but helpful and well-intentioned. I can’t help but love this book because it lives in the world, the one that was especially familiar to me when I was young. Perkins manages to make it completely plausible that Ry would end up without his cell phone in the middle of nowhere after missing a train while his parents are on vacation and his grandfather isn’t answering the phone at home. He has no choice but to make his own way home, and to grow up, and to see that the world is a bigger place than he had ever experienced before. That’s what being a teenager is all about, after all.

Thinking of his mother’s voice made him think of his mother. He thought of how she looked when he said something she thought was funny. At first her face stayed the same, except for her eyes. They would twinkle. Then the shape of her mouth and cheeks would shift almost imperceptibly into her secretly amused expression. It was weird not to know where she was. She didn’t know where he was, either. Both of them sort of thought they did, but in a useless, non-specific way. Like, oh yeah, my needle is right over there. In that haystack.” (p73)

To learn more about Lynne Rae Perkins, go here.

The Heart of Haiku, Jane Hirshfield

After finishing Imagine last week, I decided to follow the line of thought up with this slim volume about the seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho, considered to be one of the original developers of haiku. For the last five years, I’ve been keeping my own haiku journal (one entry per day), and although I don’t practice it in its most rigid form, I do consider these tiny poems to be one of my favorite forms of expression, so I was curious to read about Basho’s work in the field.

Unlike Lehrer’s approach however, which I at times struggled with from a scientific perspective, Hirshfield writes a book that’s one (large) part history, one (smaller) part technical breakdown, with a healthy sprinkling of the poet’s own elegant haiku. She tells Basho’s story with an intimate air, as though she personally shadowed his journeys, teachings, and development as a writer across a matter of miles or decades rather than centuries. She stands close to him, allowing the reader to peer with her into the grass hut where he starved and composed some of the first poems of the kind.

I love her perspective of the poet, a man I had never heard of before this book; I loved his story, his examination of the Tao, of Zen Buddhism, his maturation as a writer, and the gentle ridicule he often expressed of his own pride in his work. I have a (now well-known) short attention span when it comes to non-fiction, and this proved to be the perfect length for me to absorb the man and his work. It almost felt as though it was written to reflect the oral tradition, or the short story, and since the short story is one of my favorite formats, her choice worked well for me.

It was also wonderful to read a poet, and especially one who focused on haiku, whose work I enjoyed as much as the story composed around it. I still remember the first day of my Senior Poetry Seminar in college, when we were all asked to speak off the cuff about our favorite poet. I spent a good portion of that class hiding in the bathroom in a panic. I had no favorite poet, no one person who I could quickly point to as being my inspiration. I couldn’t even think of a poet’s name (well, except Shel Silverstein, but I didn’t think he would win me any points with my professor); consequently, whenever I find a poet now that I like, I try to write his or her name down as often as I can so that, if someone were ever to ask again, I would be ready. Basho, Basho, Basho. I am writing his name on my heart because, not only did he have a way of turning three short lines into moving verse, he did so without the pretentiousness I hate.

At one point, when he’s talking about the form of the haiku, he says something to the effect of, “it doesn’t matter if the syllables are precise – what matters is that the words flow smoothly, and that the thought it succinctly expressed.” Now, I’m paraphrasing here (because I forgot to bookmark the exact quote), but I love the point he’s making. He’s not telling his students to completely disregard to the form – it has its uses and in its perfection, great beauty – but it is not everything. The poet has the right to decide when that form has to crumble to make way for meaning.

The other point that resonated with me comes from Hirshfield herself. She says, “To read a haiku is to become its co-author, to place yourself inside its words until they reveal one of the proteus-shapes of your own life.” (loc 83) This is the basis for keeping up with my own haiku journal. I’ve talked before about the book that originally inspired the idea (The Haiku Year), but as the years pass, I can’t imagine my life without it. I especially loved when two of my friends kept their own as well, and I could stretch my own reflection process while simultaneously receiving unexpected insights into their most private thoughts. I would see where our lives bent together, then apart, like branches in a shallow river, and even when I could feel us floating further from each other, I still felt connected through this simple practice.

One of the most profound gifts I’ve ever received came out of this, in fact. The picture below was taken on my birthday about a year and a half after I started keeping my journal; my friend Joe took my first year’s worth of haikus and turned them into this exquisite box of memories.

I remember him saying, when he gave this to me, that over the hours it took to put this together for me, he found so much joy rereading my poems and reliving our first year of friendship.

Haiku is meant to be open to interpretation, to be both a reflection of the writer and of the reader in equal parts. It is technical, but not inescapably so, sophisticated, but not without humor. It is a form that lends itself to memory, but also to outward reflection, to pushing beyond ourselves to consider the wider world. To me, this is the very heart of what Hirshfield and Basho are both trying to say to us as poets, readers, and people.

Jane Hirshfield does not appear to have a website or blog, but more information about her work can be found here.