Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs

The author of this book, Janet Luhrs, has edited and published a journal titled Simple Living since 1992. In the Introduction to this book (called Living Deeply) she starts with a quote from Thoreau where he says he went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately. She then proceeds to define "living deliberately", and in doing so really sums up the whole philosophy of her book. She says it's not about how much income you have, or giving up your car, or never traveling. She says it's all about choosing your existence rather than sailing through life on automatic pilot. You choose things consciously, they don't just happen. You live consciously...deliberately...and thoughtfully, being fully present and fully aware. You live intimately...closely tied to the people, places, and things in your life. When you simplify, you'll have space and time to know and love people in a deeper way. This book is about the different paths people have taken in order to slow down and live more fully. Simplicity is not just one thing, one path. The author asks many really excellent questions: When did we decide that more and bigger stuff would give us a better life? When was the last time a busy calendar gave anyone more serenity? Do we really get more joy from worrying about, rearranging, and dusting our things than we do from visiting with a friend in an intimate way? A certain level of material comfort is necessary. We all need our own nests, food, and clothing in order to survive. We need some kind of work to do, paid or unpaid. And as human beings, we need more than the bare minimum; we need a certain level of aesthetics. The trouble is, says this author, most of us don't know when to stop. We get to a certain level of comfort and then think, "This feels nice, I'd better strive for more." The next thing you know we are buried in debt, stress, and complication. We've lost our fire, our passion for life. This book will help you get it back.

The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss

I read this book because it was a book club selection for our local Book Club, "The Porch Page Turners". One of the ladies in the club likes westerns and we hadn't read a western in awhile. I picked this one because it was one of the few westerns the state had available in kit form (meaning that we receive multiple copies of the book) that would fit our schedule. And I must say I'm glad that I did, because I really liked this book.

I didn't know anything about the author, Molly Gloss, but after reading the book discovered a link to an NPR interview with her on Morning Edition, here. There is also an excerpt from the book so you can tell whether you might like to read it or not.

The book concerns a 19 year old big boned girl wearing chaps, named Martha Lessen, who in 1917 is looking for the cowboy way of life. She shows up at the ranch of George Bliss and he hires her, because many of his usual hands are off fighting the war. She sets up a circle of horses to train in this remote county in Oregon and sets about training them in her own way. In the process she helps a family save their horses when their wagon slides into a ravine, she gentles a horse for a man dying of cancer (his last gift to his young son), and clashes with a hired hand who is abusing horses. And always there is the lore about the gentling of horses, which I found fascinating. The scene of the young rancher's last lucid moment with his wife and son before he succumbs to cancer is tender, elegant, and sweet in the hands of such a superb writer...not the least bit maudlin...just right on target where our emotions are concerned.

Martha is painfully shy with people, but great with horses, especially in reading the body language of often panicked and wild animals. She is a female horse whisperer trying to make a go of it in a man's world. And therein lies the beauty in this book. Molly Gloss is a skilled western myth buster. In the western stories of L'Amour and Zane Grey you don't hear much about the women. In fact most of western literature does not give you much from the women's point of view. Molly does a wonderful job making you feel part of the circle of conversation with the women in the story and does a great job with the history of the country and how one corner of the west was changing at the time of her story. I found her characters well drawn, her dialogue pitch perfect, and I was moved in profound ways by her characterization of the people and especially the horses who are always at the mercy of the people who own them.

After reading up on the author, I understand she has written several books that feature tough, smart, independent women, that lyrical descriptions and unforgettable characters are common in her work, and that she has dry wit and heart. I know that I will read other books by her just as soon as I get a chance to. Maybe you should give her a try too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I love Neil Gaiman. I love his accent. I love his humor. I love his leather jacket (that is his trademark), I love the slighly askew way he looks at you when he talks. And most of all, I love his writing.

My favorite quote about the book was from Joe Hill, Stephen King's son (author of Heart–Shaped Box), who said "The Graveyard Book is everything everyone loves about Neil Gaiman, only multiplied many times over, a novel that showcases his effortless feel for narrative, his flawless instincts for suspense, and above all, his dark, almost silky sense of humor."

Nobody Owens (or Bod to his friends) lives in a graveyard. He has lived there since escaping an attack from a man named Jack, who killed the rest of Bod's family. He was raised and educated by ghosts (because it takes a graveyard to raise a child), and cared for by a guardian who belonged to neither the world of the living or the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard that Neil handles with his usual inimitable aplomb. Neil himself says this book was inspired by the original Jungle Book of Rudyard Kipling. Just replace the animals with ghosts and the supernatural.

All the praise heaped upon this book, and its author in particular, are well deserved. I have never seen anyone able to combine horror, action, humor and a great deal of just old fashioned humanity in the same way that he does. I listened to the author himself read his book at the Neil Gaiman website for Young Readers here. And I must say that the end of the book was so sweet that it made me cry. Doesn't sound like your typical reaction to this kind of book, but in Neil's hands we are all putty.

As we approach Halloween, a holiday that is rivaling Christmas in popularity, the interest in all things ghostly and supernatural is at a peak and this book is a delightful treat for readers of all ages

Monday, October 13, 2008

Called Out of Darkness: a spiritual confession by Anne Rice

Ann Rice was a poor reader. She was 27 before she began an undergraduate degree in English and 32 before she earned a masters in English. Up until first grade, she was called Howard Allen (the name she was born with, which was a combination of her father’s name and her mother’s maiden name). Her parents thought the male name of Howard would be a great asset to her and that she was going to do great things.

She was a devout child raised in a deeply religious Irish Catholic family. She came out of Catholic school with knowledge of the important people and incidents of the Bible, but no real sense of its distinctiveness, or its poetic qualities. She had very little sense at all of the Bible’s voice.

She went through the eighth grade being schooled only with girls. For two years she experienced a coeducational Catholic high school, after that went to a Catholic girls’ academy for a year, and then, finally when her family moved to Texas she experienced public school for the first time.

Around freshman year of high school she began to read. The first novel that she enjoyed and loved was Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The other novel she discovered was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. But books were still hard for her to penetrate and she continued to listen for her knowledge and hang on to words of those who said interesting things. When she entered an all girls college she responded strongly to complete lectures which enabled her to learn without the necessity of cumbersome and difficult books. Her life became happy, though she made less than perfect grades because she wasn’t considered an effective writer and she considered the atmosphere of her classes disciplinary and confining. The one story she submitted to a college literary magazine was rejected.

She dreamed of being a violin virtuoso, but was not talented, so felt shut out of the realm of music. She already felt shut out of book learning, and the realm of childhood. She felt extremely uncomfortable being called a child, she didn’t “get” what childhood was, and felt she was a failure as a child. This would become a great theme in her novels—how one suffers from being an outcast.

Anne ultimately left the church because it had become for her “anti-art and anti-mind.” It was an estrangement that lasted for 38 years. She says she felt a new relaxation, and a new passion for life, but a certain bitter darkness too. In a world without God anything could happen and there would be no justice for the poor and those who died at the hands of tyrants. And so she began her secular journey. She married Stan Rice, a committed atheist, and the marriage lasted for 41 years, until his death in 2002. She had a daughter who died from leukemia before her sixth birthday. Then came the book Interview with the Vampire which made her a household name.

She wrote 21 books before her faith returned to her, and curiously it was the meticulous research she did for them, the digging through history, the studying of ancient history in particular (a Rice hallmark) that actually lay the groundwork for her return. The more she read of history—any history—the more her atheism became shaky. History, as well as Creation, was talking to Anne about God. In particular, in the survival of the Jews Anne saw something that there was no convincing sociological or economic explanation for at all. Anne says “A great love of the Jewish people began to burn in me, a love of this tribe that had survived since the most ancient times into the present day. I conceived a fierce curiosity about them, and everything pertaining to them. I was drawn to them in their piety and integrity. And I wanted to know how Christianity had arisen from their religion, and how, above all, had it managed to take the Western world by storm. If any one “thing” in all my studies led me back to Christ, it was His people, the Jews.”

This book explores her heartfelt return to her faith and gives us a glimpse into her interior pilgrimage.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Edgar Allan Poe died on this day in 1849

The Master of the Macabre died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. But the cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore are locked in a dispute as to which city has the larger claim on him. He is buried in Baltimore, where he died, but some Poe scholars say he was living in Philadelphia when he produced much of his best work (including some of the best detective mysteries ever written).

There has been much disagreement as to the cause of death. It has been postulated that he died of rabies. The author of that hypothesis says Poe entered Washington College Hospital comatose, but by the next day was perspiring heavily, hallucinating and shouting at imaginary companions. The following day, he seemed better but could not remember falling ill. On his fourth day at the hospital, Poe again grew confused and belligerent, then quieted down and died.

That is a classic case of rabies, the author said. In the brief period when he was calm and awake, Poe refused alcohol and could drink water only with great difficulty. Rabies victims frequently exhibit hydrophobia, or fear of water, because it is painful to swallow. This study is in the September 1996 issue of The Maryland Medical Journal.

Although it has been well established that Poe died in the hospital, legend has it that he succumbed in the gutter, a victim of his debauched ways. The legend may have been fostered by his doctor, who in later years became a temperance advocate and changed the details to make an object lesson of Poe's death.

Some say Poe almost surely did not die of alcohol poisoning or withdrawal. The writer was so sensitive to alcohol that a glass of wine would make him violently ill for days. Poe may have had problems with alcohol as a younger man, but by the time he died at 40 he almost always avoided it.

An unknown visitor has paid homage to Poe's grave every year since 1949. Due to the length of this tribute it is likely that several individuals are involved. But every January 19th in the wee hours of the morning they make a toast of cognac to Poe's original grave marker and leave 3 roses. They have been affectionately referred to as the "Poe Toaster".

Poe contributed to the genre of science fiction, as well as being a poet and critic. Here's a wonderful link to a searchable collection of his works.

Edgar Allan Poe

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

For the Book Lover

Here's a good resource for all you book lovers out there. The next time you catch yourself thinking you're in the mood to read something, but you just don't know what, it might be a good idea to open this book and do a little perusing. The author (an award winning book reviewer for the Boston Globe, who loves, loves, loves books) has listed about 80 different moods with a sampling of books offered under each topic. She gives a brief description of the book, and any awards it may have won. Moods range from "A Good Laugh" to "A Good Cry" and many in between, including "For Romance", "For Revenge", "For Hope", "For Heartbreak", and "To Survive". There is a rating system for each book with associated icons representing the various categories. The ratings are: Literary Merit, Provocative, Influential, Inspirational, Humorous, Brainy, Easy Reading, Page Turner, Challenging, Bathroom Book, Family Friendly, Movie (Books that have been made into a movie).

For example, under the category " Remember Mama" she has listed one of my all time favorite books "All Over But the Shoutin' " by Rick Bragg. For literary merit she gives it two stars (out of four possible). [Here, I think I would differ with her assessment...seems to me that there is a slight bias against southern authors in a couple of her ratings, I would have been a little more generous]. And she rates it provocative, inspirational, humorous, and a relaxed easy read. Also in this category she lists "Mama Makes Up Her Mind: And Other Dangers of Southern Living" by Bailey White (another one of my favorites). Again she gives it two stars for literary merit and rates it funny, a relaxed easy read, and a bathroom book.

The fun parts of this book for me were her quirkier categories like "To Save the World", "To Defy Expectations", "To Revel in Words", or "To Suffer No Fools". And it was interesting to see how her tastes in books ran and whether it was counter to mine, as well as pick up a few good tips for books I hadn't managed to read yet and make a notation in my brain about when I might want to pick them up and read them according to the emotional state they matched. As the book jacket says, Hallie Ephron serves up a literary feast, sure to satisfy your emotional appetite.
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