Sunday, June 29, 2008

Oh, and...

... please forgive me if my on-going letter is one continuous string of books read, at this point. Travel, parenting, bringing some modicum of order to the house, and READING, that's IT right now. I'm looking forward to the next stretch of quiet for writing, and the leisure to spin yarn and knit-- I just don't know when that will be.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

and the awards go to...

Most helpful books for writing skills:
Writing True
The Situation and the Story

Lasting Impressions:
Scott Russell Sander’s A Private History of Awe
Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life
Haven Kimmel’s The Solace of Leaving Early
T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets
Everything Flannery O’Connor

Flat-out Best Individual Essays I've read this year:
Street Haunting by Virginia Woolf
Warping Time with Montaigne, Emily D. Chase
Expedition to the Pole and Sojourner by Annie Dillard
G K Chesterton on a Piece of White Chalk
Valmiki’s Palm and BirdWatching as Blood Sport by David James Duncan
Linda Buturian’s Great Bird
Snake Bit by Connie Weineke
Under the Influence by Scott Russell Sanders
And Dorothy Sayers’ Introduction to Dante’s Inferno

And for fun,
Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet, just a treat,
the recordings of A Wrinkle in Time and Wind in the Door, read by Madeleine L’Engle herself! And always, always, Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon: spend an hour with an onion.

thirty-two books

These are the books I've read for school this year ... and the list doesn't even include Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows!

Anthologies and books about writing:
Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story
Philip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay
Perl and Schwartz, Writing True
The Fourth Genre
Cort Conley and Annie Dillard, editors, Modern American Memoir
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Greg Wolfe, The New Religious Humanism
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

Common readings (required, but good requirements)
Four Quartets, T.S.Eliot
Robert Alter, Genesis, A Translation
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners
Flannery O’ Connor, The Complete Stories
Augustine, Confessions
Dante, The Divine Comedy

Chosen Readings in Creative NonFiction, new
Patricia Hampl, I Could Tell you Stories
Scott Russell Sanders, Private History of Awe
Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight
Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
Linda Buturian, World Gone Beautiful
Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments
Leslie Leyland Fields, Island of Grace
Nancy Mairs, Voice Lessons
Haven Kimmel, A Girl Named Zippy
Haven Kimmle, She Got Up Off The Couch
Nancy Mairs, Remembering the Bonehouse

Chosen Readings in Creative Nonfiction, "old friends"
David James Duncan, God Laughs and Plays
Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb
David James Duncan, My Story as Told by Water
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Chosen Readings in Fiction
Haven Kimmel, The Solace of Leaving Early
Haven Kimmel, Something Rising Light and Swift
Haven Kimmel, The Used World
Annie Dillard, The Maytrees

I'll read thirty more for next year-- the list looks good.

Friday, June 27, 2008

late June note

It was only a month ago that we visited eleven states on a trip to Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and points in-between. Two weeks ago I traveled to Schenectady, where my family had one vacation and I had another, with an overlap for sleeping and a few meals. (They thought it was a trip to The Baseball Hall of Fame. I knew it was a chance to catch up with Steve and do a little homework.) Last weekend we drove north to New Hampshire for the birthday party of Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church, and yesterday we drove south to visit friends staying at a beach near Cape Cod. Next Monday Scott begins his summer school schedule and Madeleine begins her camp schedule, which means Brendan and I start our “quiet” schedule, too.

I am reading Dante and Augustine in preparation for my summer courses, and a little of Dorothy Sayers’ commentary on Dante. I have a juicy stack of books for “next reads” and I’m getting ready to launch into them, too, once I have a little more of my required reading finished. Somewhere in there, the laundry is getting folded and the family is being fed and the cat is begging to have his ears scratched again. I’ll write more when there is a bit more time to myself.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

little note

Is June just beautiful where you are?

We had three days of extreme heat and high pollen count, and since then it’s day after day of breeze and sun, except for the beautiful rainy days. Vacation finds my family well-slept, with erratic schedules and no sense of routine. Three days in New York State (my family at the Baseball Hall of Fame, but I sat on my friend Steve’s porch, listening to the rain), a day in New Hampshire today—green everywhere.

Somehow I’m reading, reading, reading and I’m caught up with my graduate work for a moment—of course I need to dive into my reading for summer and fall. I’m enjoying Annie Dillard, and working my way through Dante’s Divine Comedy and The Confessions of Augustine.

Friday, June 13, 2008


We've returned to our regularly-scheduled June, seventy-six degrees, cool breeze, drinkable weather. A round of antibiotics returns me to my regular head, too, and my voice is returning though my throat is still raw. The yellow pollen is still visible on the street, though I've washed it from my car-- we need a good rain.

A mom's life in summer: there are little league games to attend, playdates to arrange, camp applications to complete, and a zillion piles of laundry to fold. But it's the first week of summer vacation, and the laziness is still delectable. Perhaps I'll get that last annotation finished today.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

annotation draft for Annie Dillard's The Writing Life

Here is a peek at the grad school process: for each of the thirty-two books I've read this year, I need an "annotation," which is an odd species of writing, "like a writing journal, but thoughtful," said one person. "Everything you'd need to know from a book" said another-- but the annotation is supposed to be less than two pages long. "Everything I'd need to know" is much, much longer! I feel like each annotation is closer to a draft than to a review, because I also turn in creative writing, which is the real focus of my studies, and three critical papers each year, with the annotations taking the lowest priority.

So here's my annotation for The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

…the manuscript revealed the usual signs of struggle—bloodstains, teethmarks, gashes and burns. p 29

Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world…. Writers…surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper. p 44

Seven chapters, one hundred and eleven scant pages, not much of it encouraging, most of it fearsome—this book is one of the wittiest I’ve read, and the most dead-on discussion of writing. Had I read this book sooner, it would’ve scared the bejeezus out of me. Later and I might hang onto romantic notions about writing longer than I can afford. At the end of my first year in the MFA program, this must be the right time.

Chapter One introduces “a line” for the writer to pursue, and a handful of metaphors for building and testing that written line. The chapter is nearly unbearable, damning the foolishness of writing:
…your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one cares whether you do it well, or ever….Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality. p 11

Chapter Two exposes a writer’s daily grind of isolation and sensory deprivation, stripping the writing “nook” to its cinderblock necessity. Chapter Three describes how to chop wood—and write-- ineffectively. Chapter Four tells the self-combustion of a typewriter. Chapter Five invokes mastery as a slow process in painting as well as literature. Chapter Six answers “how’s it going?” with the self-same slowness described in Chapter Five.

Today, this book is like a beating—I am tired and perhaps I’ve only truly just begun at the work of writing. I’m okay with being a beginner of sorts—I am. (This is what education does: prove that The Task I’m learning is more complicated and subtle than I could’ve known.) Over two days I’ve started reading the book, stopped, taken a break, considered quitting the book altogether for fear that I’ll be too depressed to go on—and then the sentences I’ve noted are so apt and funny that I need to read the next section and the next. Writing IS absurd. But Dillard gives herself over to it, and her irritation with her calling is fun to read. It won’t get any worse than she describes, and she’s really good at this art. She never once says she loves writing and in fact she admits that she hates it and she can’t explain why she does it. There is some weird joy to the head-banging process of writing, some weird joy to her obvious devotion.

The pull of The Writing Life is beautiful sentences, odd but not overwrought (as I felt The Maytrees was overwrought). I could underline the entire book or read it out loud, the language is so playful.

Chapter Seven never mentions writing: it is about flying “a line” for the sake of beauty. And now the whole book is about flying, carving, looping, redefining what a line is. The whole book is about cracks and fissures and volatility in mountains, flaws that might destroy, fires in typewriters, dizziness, speed, hardnosed devotion and mystery. The whole book must be read again to “prove” the final chapter. I am the one thrilling like a spectator at a flight show, watching someone do this writing thing spectacularly well. Dillard is clear that writing this way is a dangerous undertaking. She lays down the gauntlet: are you a woman or a mouse?p 4. You can waste a year worrying about it or you can get it over with now. The brute edge of the truth is helpful. I am definitely not a mouse, and I’d best get over it now. I started reading, glum and getting more so by the minute. But there is something odd and perfect about this book. I end exhilarated, hungry for more reading and hungry for the next writing pursuit.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

beach season

As we unpacked our small stash of beach gear, my daughter’s playmate pointed out the thick slick of yellow pollen creating yellow-green foam on the crests of waves. That’s the stuff—that’s the yellow stuff wreaking havoc on my sinuses.

Eighty-six degrees with a delectable breeze, a layer of lavender sky on the horizon, and the beach miraculously cleared of big rocks and debris, children miraculously free of bickering. If I have to suffer, I may as well suffer in paradise. The doctor is talking to me on the cell phone, about sinus infection and antibiotics, sigh. Meanwhile I read under the shade of the giant sun hat on this gorgeous, gorgeous day, while the children remember favorite water engineering projects, requiring much digging, while I sip hot tea from my thermos to ease my throat.

The book is Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, terrifying, hilarious, powerful. I have to stop midway and open a magazine, rest my eyes on some photos.

The water is warm, the engineers say—which might not be “warm” to you, but it means I won’t turn blue and shake. Swimming will mean parting the veil of yellow on the surface, risking full-body coverage of pollen. I smile at the engineers-- okay. I’m going in if you are.

Beach season has begun. Hop in the car and drive, friends. The water is warm enough. By the time you arrive, the antibiotics will have kicked in, my head will begin to clear, and perhaps it will feel like vacation for all of us.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

hunkering through the heat wave

I woke with the mockingbird calling at 5:30, then returned to sleep for two more hours, an incredible luxury, and today a necessity. Though ill-advised, I slept with the window open to the scent of night and morning.

The children slept late. Is there a more beautiful sentence in all of parenthood, in summer, the first week of school vacation?

Yesterday the thermometer registered 91 degrees here on the New England coast. Didn’t the lilacs just stop blooming? June is usually considered “spring,” and just a week ago I scrambled to find turtlenecks, jeans, socks for a high temperature of 56 degrees. Now we are hunkered indoors with the air conditioner while I escape the layer of yellow pollen I can plainly see on my grill, my porch, my car. I want my children to play outside, but I can’t breathe out there, not even here with the ocean breeze blowing inland. Big headache yesterday-- it’s been a long time since the last migraine, long enough that I’d forgotten to note the buzzing in the bridge of my nose before it became something bigger. By dinner I was in bed with hot tea and ginger, and by kid-bedtime I was asleep.

Children woke at nine-thirty, more rested than they’ve been in weeks. Summer days mean the all-kitchen production of a fruit salad, being constructed right now from cantaloupe, watermelon, grapes and bananas. Summer means coloring projects for this few hot-and-pollen-filled days, and then we will return to the usual rituals of beach-going and walks and playgrounds. For now they love being at home, letting time spin out endlessly. By next week they will be using the word “boring” and we’ll be ready to move on. I'm looking at my dull prose here, thinking "boring" is right! But I'm medicated, so...

I ended the grad school quarter “behind” by four book annotations, but I’ve since finished Haven Kimmel’s Used World and am knee-deep in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I’m pursuing a book called Bewildered Travel and I just reread Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb, which is a vacation unto itself. Next come my summer readings. It’s do-able.

And now the conversation in the kitchen raises a few decibels and Madeleine asks if I’m ready to partake of the lunch buffet. Not satisfied, Brendan marches in to announce that the buffet is open, with a trumpet flourish. Welcome to summer vacation, while it’s still fresh to all of us.