Sunday, July 27, 2008

Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry is a novelist whose books have been made into movies that most people would recognize: Hud, The Last Picture Show. Terms of Endearment, and the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove. I must admit that I've not read any of his books, but I have seen all of the movies made from his books.

I wanted to read this book because it was written about his passion for books. McMurtry says he developed this passion despite growing up in a largely "bookless" world. He tells stories about starting out as a book scout and collector who eventually opens stores of rare and collectible editions, and I was blown away by the fact that he maintains a personal library of 28,000 volumes. This is probably a book that will appeal only to a specialized audience: booklovers, book collectors, or book fanciers, as it is filled with anecdotes about the eccentric characters that buy and sell, collect, or lust after rare books. But I feel that a few of the points that he makes towards the end of the book are worth pondering by a larger audience.

He says he nowadays has the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support--reading--is itself an eccentricity now. He believes that interrupted narrative has become a natural thing. Older authors like Dickens who were serially published may have started it, but the silicon chip has accelerated the process of interruption with the advent of iPods, BlackBerrys, laptops, etc. All, he says, break narrative into shorter and shorter sequences. Still, he is hopeful that someday these toys will lose their freshness and old-fashioned things like books will come to hold some interest for the masses again.

But the antiquarian book trade has declined precipitously in just the last 50 years. McMurtry bemoans that fact, and though he says he has no satisfactory answers as to why, he does provide a few clues. Few young people are forming personal libraries today. The books bought new at the chains soon trickle back into the secondhand market. But unfortunately there are fewer and fewer secondhand book shops to absorb these castoffs. The secondhand book business has existed for centuries because people want to read. But seeing the challenges that have occurred in the last few years, it begs the question: we can all survive the loss of the secondhand book trade, but can we survive the loss of reading?

And now I will quote from his book the part that really hit home to me, as a librarian:

"Today the sight that discourages book people most is to walk into a public library and see computers where books used to be. In many cases not even the librarians want books to be there. What consumers want now is information, and information increasingly comes from computers. That is a preference I can't grasp, much less share, though I'm well aware that computers have many valid uses. They save lives, and they make research in most cases a thing that's almost instantaneous. They do many good things. But they don't really do what books do, and why should they usurp the chief function of a public library, which is to provide readers access to books? Books can accommodate the proximity of computers but it doesn't seem to work the other way around. Computers now literally drive out books from the place that should, by definition, be books' own home: the library."

I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. As a librarian I am forced to remind people every day that the library is about so much more than just books. But as a dedicated book lover, they would be enough for me. I don't have to have computers or cafes or anything like that to pull me into a library. The books are what motivate and move me and capture my heart. If you are this kind of book person, you'll probably enjoy McMurtry's book.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Gayl Jones

I just finished reading two books of poetry by Gayl Jones: "Xarque and Other Poems" and "The Hermit-Woman". As a poetry lover, I had always heard her name mentioned with glowing comments about her writing.

I looked up her biography after I read the first book. Her titles include novelist, poet, playwright, professor, and literary critic, and she was born in Lexington, Kentucky. But more disturbing to me was the chronicle of her personal life.

Her career has been marked by periods of silence, and apparently since the 1980's a withdrawal from public life. She has stated that she wanted to be known by her work and not her personal life. And really, that is quite understandable. Unfortunately her personal life became fodder for lurid headlines. Despite her accomplishments and success she seems to be quite a lonely figure and somewhat of a paranoid personality.

When she married, her husband (Bob Higgins) took the name Bob Jones. Higgins had already had several clashes with the police and was said to be a paranoid personality himself. When he was arrested after threatening someone with a shotgun, he and Gayl fled the country. Jones resigned her position (which was in Michigan at the time) with an angry letter that charged the administration with racism and, according to the New York Times, contained the sentences "Do what you want. God is with Bob and I'm with him."

The couple spent time in France and Sweden over the next few years and Gayl continued to write. When she and her husband returned to the states they moved in with Gayl's mother in Lexington. They rarely spoke to or interacted with their neighbors. Gayl's mother developed cancer and the couple became convinced that the hospital was using her secretly in medical experiments and removed her from the hospital against doctors' orders. When her mother died, they harassed hospital administrators and law enforcement officials.

When the police went to their house to serve an outstanding warrant on Bob, they found the door bolted and smelled gas. Gayle (according to the Boston Globe) dialed 911 and screamed "The state of Kentucky is damned. Get these cops out of here! The U.S. is damned. If you go to Iraq, I hope they destroy you. If you try to take my husband you'll have to kill me. You killed my mother, you'll have to kill me as well." Officers entering the house managed to subdue Gayle (who was held in a Kentucky mental hospital for 17 days), but Bob Jones slashed his own throat all the way through to the spinal cord and died instantly. "I'm sure you realize my brother-in-law was insane," Gayl Jones's brother Frank was quoted as saying in the New York Times.

Released from the hospital, Gayl stayed in Lexington and continued her reclusive life. But what a stormy and turbulent life it had been to that point.

Her writing, though criticized for what some see as an indictment against black men (portraying them as abusive husbands and lovers) still manages to show how racism and sexism build on each other. In "Hermit-Woman" the female narrator says: "I am any ordinary woman" when the lovers ask "Are you a hermit?". When asked "Does love transform?" the woman responds that "love's a danger and a promise". There are many passages in this book that prove Ms. Jones is an engaging story-teller who weaves together memorable narratives with intuitive depth and provocative implicitness. In fact, it has been said that perhaps the single strongest element in Jones's work is its evocation of human speech; she has said that she had to hear something before she could write it. Her language brings to mind improvisational jazz or the repetitions of blues music. And she always encouraged her students to write stories after listening to music.

It is a common notion that there is a fine line between creativity and insanity, and a brief perusal of history would probably support that notion. Are genius and madness related? There is something mysterious and unexplainable about the creative process. I'll leave all of that to the psychologists to sort out. I did find the writing of Gayl Jones fascinating.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Shack by William P. Young

I love to read book jackets. I enjoy seeing what other people have to say about a book; I look for the synopsis so I can see if the book might be something that appeals to me; and I love to read about the author. In the case of The Shack, two quotes by Eugene Peterson caught my attention. The first, on the front cover, says "This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his. It's that good!" The second one on the back of the book said "When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize, the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. That definitely got my attention.

This book wrestles with the question of evil in our world and why God if he is a loving God and so powerful does not do something about it.

Mackenzie Allen Philips has a young daughter, Missy, who is abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she has probably been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack in the Oregon wilderness. Several years later, in the midst of what Mackenzie Philips calls his "Great Sadness", he receives a note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for the weekend.

What he finds there will change his world forever. This amazing book will challenge you to more closely examine every biblical cliche and spiritual insight you thought you possessed to reveal the true nature of the divine heart of God. If you were a person who always had a lot of questions about organized religion and the struggle between tradition and truth, you may need to read this book. The beautiful way that spiritual insights are woven through the narrative of this book will delight and amaze you.

This is a book of great wisdom and insight, and it has been something of a publishing phenomena, as it has touched people's lives in various ways and continues to do so. People have ordered copies and then ordered more to share with friends. In the first four months of publication, without the book appearing in one bookstore and without any national media campaign, more than 12,000 books were sold from a single website. Their dream is to sell enough copies of the book to open the door for a feature film that the world will want to see and that will present an accurate understanding of God's character and nature to a world that longs in the deepest places of their hearts for such a God.

This book examines pain, loss, grief, anger, longing, secrets, lies, forgiveness, and presents a loving God who's purposes are accomplished every time we reach out and touch a heart or a life with kindness and service. The Shack is a beautiful story of how God can be found even in the midst of our pain and will never forsake us.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

You Can Go Anywhere: From the Crossroads of the World by Georgia Green Stamper

There were several things that made me want to read this book:

(1) The comment made by Gwyn Hyman Rubio (author of Icy Sparks) on the back of the book jacket: "Georgia Green Stamper is to Kentucky what Bailey White is to Georgia." I am a huge Bailey White fan.

(2) The quote from Silas House on the back of the jacket where he says "Georgia Green Stamper's essays do that most important thing that only the most accomplished writers are sometimes lucky to do: capture and preserve a place, a time, and its people." I adore the writing of Silas House.

(3) In the Introduction, Leatha Kendrick quotes one of my favorite passages from Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire in evoking the power and precision of Ms. Stamper's writing to capture that time and place and people that Silas House mentions: "This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary."

Her essays are split into sections titled "A Little Bit of our Soul", "Family is our Unique Slant on History", "You Might as well Laugh, Mother Always Said", and "The Seasons...would always be Changing". These essays are filled with humor and insight and are very thought-provoking. The Appalachian region has a wonderful tradition of oral storytelling. Books like this, where you capture that tradition so lovingly between two covers are essential.

Georgia Green Stamper is a seventh generation Kentuckian who grew up on a tobacco farm in Owen County. She and her husband still own land that has been in the family for over a hundred and fifty years. I am an Alabama girl who's family still lives on land that my grandparents worked and who just happened to marry a Kentucky boy who lives on the land his father worked himself into an early grave over.

But I do know her people. They are my people too. And though she says her people were common folk in the eyes of the world, people of small consequence, her stories show that she appreciates growing up and being immersed in a family's culture and history. That despite the outward poverty of their lives (outhouses, coal burning stoves, drafty houses with linoleum floors, unpaved roads and one room schoolhouses), these people and this way of life had an innate wisdom and rhythm to it that is fast disappearing, and yet is wonderfully preserved in her stories. She is speaking their piece for them to anyone who will listen. And I hope that we will all cast an ear in her direction.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Pizza, Pigs, and Poetry by Jack Prelutsky

Jack Prelutsky is the nation's first Children's Poet Laureate. He has been writing poetry for children for over forty years.

I have talked to many kids that come in and out of my library about poetry. Many of them think they don't like it. But I have never met any kid yet (nor adult for that matter) that didn't like Jack's poetry.

In this book, Jack shares with kids a little background about his life, and how he gets ideas and creates his wonderfully funny and charming poems. He gives kids good tips and techniques concerning the writing process. But the best thing he does in this book is show them how to use their imagination to turn ideas into poems.

The first thing he admits, is that he was not the best-behaved little boy in the world. In fact, I dare say after reading about the escapades of Jack and his brother, he was one of those kids that really try the patience of their parents sorely. I probably would have throttled him if he were mine. But he turns these experiences about family and pets and friends into the most delightful poems.

As an example, here's one he wrote about his father and some of the whacky things he did to him as a boy:

I Wonder Why Dad is So Thoroughly Mad

I wonder why Dad is so thoroughly mad,
I can't understand it at all,
unless it's the bee still afloat in his tea,
or his underwear, pinned to the wall.

Perhaps it's the dye on his favorite tie,
or the mousetrap that snapped in his shoe,
or the pipeful of gum that he found with his thumb,
or the toilet, sealed tightly with glue.

It can't be the bread crumbled up in his bed,
or the slugs someone left in the hall,
I wonder why Dad is so thoroughly mad.
I can't understand it at all.

This is a book that will appeal to all ages. I took it with me to a Literary Society meeting with teenagers and young adults, and they all loved it too. If you are a poet, or want to be a poet, or just want to spend some time laughing and reliving childhood, this book is a good resource.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Whale Song by Cheryl Kaye Tardif

Ever since I read Mind in the Waters by Joan McIntyre (a book that celebrates the consciousness of whales and dolphins) I have loved cetaceans. It breaks my heart that they are still hunted. Commercial whaling has been banned for more than two decades, but Japan, Iceland, and Norway continue firing harpoons into these gentle creatures for products that nobody needs. Orcinus Orca (the Killer Whale) is not hunted commercially, is found in all oceans of the world, and with its striking black and white coloring is one of the best known of all the cetaceans.

Another great interest of mine is Native American culture. I greatly admire the native peoples and respect the inherent wisdom of the natural world that so permeates their culture.

So this book, for me, was a natural read. And I was not disappointed. It is a well written young adult coming of age tragedy thats appeal transcends the teen audience and encompasses anyone that would enjoy a tale well told.

Sarah Richardson moves with her family to Vancouver Island just as she's about to enter the sixth grade. Sarah makes a new best friend, Goldie (a local native girl), and soaks up wisdom from Goldie's grandmother Nana. Her mother is an artist and her father is a marine biologist studying killer whales. While there, Sarah is involved in a family tragedy that will change her life forever. As Sarah is the only witness to this tragedy, and suffers hysterical amnesia, this novel is a haunting tale of choices made and how the repercussions of those choices can tear a family apart. It is an enchanting and uplifting tale that combines the optimistic spirituality of native myth with the hard realities of modern existence. The characters and descriptive setting will enthrall you.

The edition of Whale Song that I read was dedicated to the memory of the author's brother, Jason Anthony Kaye, who was brutally murdered in 2006, a week after his 28th birthday. When the police discovered his body, they set out to track down his next of kin. In the end, the police tracked her down through this book. When they asked Jason's friends about relatives in the area, they said Jason had a sister who lived on the south side of Edmonton--they didn't know her name, but they knew that she had written a book about whales. The marvels of the internet ultimately, but sadly, brought two homocide investigators to her door. What a story. You can read more about Jason at the site she has set up in his honor:

I highly recommend this book.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Sins of the Fathers by Nash Black

O.K. I have to be honest and say that I have a connection to the authors of this book. Irene Black is a former Director of the Library where I am presently employed, a fellow book club member (we both belong to the Porch Page Turners), and a friend. I have known her and her charming husband Ford for several years now.

They have written a couple of Brewster County novels under the name Nash Black (the combined name of Irene Black and Ford Nashett)--"Qualifying Laps", and its prequel "Sins of our Fathers", as well as a non-fiction book called "Writing as a Small Business".

Since we are lucky enough to have an author as a book club member, we decided to choose "Sins of the Fathers" as our July selection for Book Club.

When movie star Marci Layne returns home to Brewster County, her high school lover turns up dead and all evidence points to her. A local lawyer and ardent fan sets out to prove she didn't kill him, based on her word alone. There are lots of twists and turns with past secrets colliding with the present till the mystery is solved.

This is a fast pleasant read, what I would call a nice little cozy mystery (with a decidedly non-cozy theme--child abuse). I had a little trouble keeping up with the characters at first, but the authors have kindly provided a list of characters in the front of the book, and it was a big help to be able to flip back to this list to reorient myself. And without giving away too much of the plot, the authors have researched the disintegration of the human personality when subjected to child molestation, and dedicate the book to the Lake Cumberland Children's Advocacy Center (with one dollar from each sale of this book being donated to the Center).

I think Brewster County may be a nice addition to some of the other fictional communities I have learned to love, from Jan Karon's Mitford to Philip Gulley's Harmony. Gotta love those small town folks and their quirky charm.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Dance by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Oriah Mountain Dreamer's "The Invitation"was very popular on a lot of inspirational web sites and was passed around on a lot of emails. I don't remember how I came across it, but when I did, it made me curious about her when I saw this book advertized, I wanted to read it.

The best way to give you a taste of what her writing is like is to repeat "The Invitation" here:

"It doesn't interest me what you do for a living

I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.

It doesn't interest me how old you are

I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love

for your dreams

for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon...

I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow

if you have been opened by life's betrayals

or have become shrivelled and closed

from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain

mine or your own

without moving to hide it

or fade it

or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy

mine or your own

if you can dance with wildness

and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your

fingers and toes

without cautioning us to

be careful

be realistic

to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn't interest me if the story you are telling me

is true.

I want to know if you can

disappoint another

to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal

and not betray your own soul.

If you can be faithless

and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty

even when it is not pretty

every day.

And if you can source your own life

from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure

yours and mine

and still stand on the edge of the lake

and shout to the silver of the full moon,


It doesn't interest me

to know where you live or how much money you have.

I want to know if you can get up

after a night of grief and despair

weary and bruised to the bone

and do what needs to be done

to feed the children.

It doesn't interest me who you know

or how you came to be here.

I want to know if you will stand

in the center of the fire

with me

and not shrink back.

It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom

you have studied.

I want to know what sustains you

from the inside

when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone

with yourself

and if you truly like the company you keep

in the empty moments."

I guess what I like most about her writing is that she tries to challenge you to live with passion, energy, and honesty. She believes that sometimes happiness gets buried beneath the clutter of our harried lives. She tells some stories from her own experience and encourages us to slow down and return to the sacred emptiness, where we encounter our true self.

Though some of her writing at times seems to border on New Age spirituality, she herself has been an outspoken critic. She says she doesn't like sloppy thinking, a refusal to ask questions, or an easy acceptance of things we cannot know to be true because we find them comforting or far more entertaining than our everyday lives, and she sees too much of all of this in some New Age philosophies and groups and thinks it is dangerous. And yet she does write under the name Oriah Mountain Dreamer (which she took when she was studying and participating in shamanic ceremonies, it means "one who likes to push the edge) and gets some of her wisdom from a group of elders that appear to her in her dreams that she calls "the grandmothers" she is obviously a woman of great contradictions.

Her writing seems to me to be an interesting mix of spirituality, inspiration, love of poetry and nature, sprinkled with self deprecating humor as well as an acceptance of life's absurdities. I am usually turned off by New Age type stuff and yet I find myself charmed by her openness and disarming way of baring her own hurts and blunders in her stories. She doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but instead tries to show us how to live the questions. That I like.
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