Saturday, September 12, 2015

Books Read in 2015

I plan to use this blog mainly as a place to keep track of the books read each year.  As seen from the list so far, my reading has been eclectic and varied.

  • New favorite female authors are Margaret Atwood and P.D. James. 
  • A number of books below, both old and new, reinforce my belief that death is not an end but rather a beginning to another type of existence. 
  • Read books by three poets who expressed their loss in different ways: Hirsch in a long poetic eulogy to his son; Doty in a prose memoir and Atwood in a collection of poems. 
  • Chipped away at my goal to read all the plays of the Greek tragedians (still have a few from Euripides left).
  • Finally read The Great Gatsby and did not like it at all.
  • Much to ponder from Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Tolle, Thich Nhat Hanh and Chodron. I regret not being interested in these teaching earlier in life. Why did it take a horrible tragedy to begin what I now see as a true awakening? 
  • Been listening to the BBC World Book Club podcasts in the car where authors read from their book and answer questions (would highly recommend). As a result, read Corban, Haddon, and P.D. James. 
  • Circling back to WWII by reading about GI Brides and an incredible horse. I plan to visit the Marine Corps Museum to see the statue of Sgt. Reckless. 
  • Indulged in brain candy (Kinsella)


  • Bhagavad Gita translated by Stephen Mitchell (5)
  • 8 Limbs of Yoga by Bhava Ram (4)
  • The Forks Over Knives Plan by Drs. Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman (4)
  • How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chodron (5)
  • I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb (4)
  • My Land and My People by Dalai Lama of Tibet (4)
  • West With the Night by Beryl Markham (4)
  • Finding Peter by William Peter Blatty (3)
  • Gabriel: A Poem by Edward Hirsch (4)
  • Heaven's Coast: A Memoir by Mark Doty (4)
  • The Hand on the Mirror: A True Story of Life Beyond Death by Janis Heaphy Durham (4)
  • A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich (4)
  • Phoenecian Women by  Euripides (4)
  • Orestes by Euripides (3)
  • Bacchae by Euripides (4)
  • No Mud, No Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh (5)
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (3)
  • Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien (4)
  • Six Years by Harlan Coban (3.5)
  • A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle (4)
  • Blonde: A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates (5)
  • My Story by Marilyn Monroe with Ben Hecht (5)
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (5)
  • The Map of Heaven by Eban Elexander with Ptolemy Tompkins (4)
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (5)
  • Tao Te Ching version by Stephen Mitchell (5)
  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (4)
  • GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi (3.5)
  • Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood (4)
  • Beowulf: A New Version by Seamus Heaney (4)
  • Morning in the Burned House: New Poems by Margaret Atwood (4)
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (5)
  • Death in the Holy Orders by P.D. James (4.5)
  • Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (4)
  • Sgt. Reckless: America's War Horse by Robin Hutton (4)
  • I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella (3)
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (4)
  • The Incarnations by Susan Barker (4)
  • The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz (1)
  • The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich (5)
  • Marilyn Norma Jean by Gloria stenhem/George Barris (photos) (4)
  • An Army at Dawn (Vol I of Liberation Trilogy) by Rick Atkinson (4)
  • Re-read:  The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (5+)
  • Memoirs of the Second World War by Winston Churchill (4)
  • Re-read: The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (4)
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (4+)
  • Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes (5)
  • Play: Electra by Sophocles (4)
  • Play: Electra by Euripides (4) 
  • Inside Outside by Herman Wouk (4)

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Direction in 2015

My grief journey has taken a definite turn towards inner contemplation, reflection, meditation and yoga. Inspired by my daughter becoming a yoga teacher, I am currently in a 200 hour RYT (registered yoga teacher) training at a wonderful studio called Beloved Yoga.  I have even stopped teaching my 3 indoor cycles classes so I could focus on this training.  

One thing I've learned is that yoga is MUCH bigger than what is typically done in a yoga class. Poses are just the tip of the iceberg; the philosophy of yoga is a way of life. 

Since I am a reader, the way I learn is through books. So after a binge ordering spree, the following 15 books have found their way to me. 

Wherever You Go, There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World by John O'Donohue
To Bless The Space Between Us by John O'Donohue
No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by Thich Nhat Hanh
Stillness Speaks by Eckhart Tolle
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Rumi's Little Book of Life by Rumi

Light on Yoga by B.K.S Iyengar
The 8 Limbs of Yoga: Pathway to Liberation by Bhava Ram 
Deep Yoga: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times by Bhava Ram
Yoga Sequencing by Mark Stephens
Yoga Sequencing Deck by Jillian Bobowicz

Heaven's Coast by Mark Doty
Light on Life by B.K.S Iyengar

I am not sure what, if any additional posts will show up on this blog.  It almost feels as though it has served its purpose and I am ready to move on.  We'll see what happens.... 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November 2014 Books

Half in Love (surviving the legacy of suicide) by Linda Gray Sexton
Published: 2010
Rating: 4
Author web site

Another brutally honest memoir from the daughter of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton who died by suicide when Linda was 21 years old.

In her first memoir, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to my Mother, Anne Sexton (1994), Linda examines the complicated relationship with her brilliant but mentally unstable mother. I read and reviewed this in August - see post.

Years pass and Linda is now happily married with two boys. However the idyllic life ends as she spirals into deep depression/suicidal ideation resulting in three suicide attempts which tear her own family apart.

For someone who seeks to understand the suicidal mind, I found this memoir to be very helpful - similar to William Styron's Darkness Visible - see post on Josh's blog for thoughts on his book.

  • Her description of depression is harrowing: a hungry monster, strong, insatiable, looking to devour.
  •  Love is not enough to prevent suicide - neither the love for others to stop oneself nor the love from others to prevent. 
  • To cope with her intense internal pain, she became a cutter. She describes in excruciating detail her thoughts and feelings while cutting and why it worked.
  • She exonerates her mother and herself by saying that the motivation for suicide was a way, albeit extreme and final, to end pain.
  • She recognizes that to live with someone who struggles with depression and suicidal ideation is tough. Her own husband, father and sister could not cope with her. 
On a lighter note, she has written a third memoir called Besotted about living with Dalmations.

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
Published: 2008
Rating: 4
Author web site

This historical WWII fiction is based on a diary of an East Prussian woman in which she chronicles her family's harrowing move west in 1945 - just ahead of the brutal Russian army.

Bohjalian gives a list of books that helped in his research - I've only read two and am interested in the others.

  • Armageddon by Max Hastings
  • D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Stephen Ambrose (read)
  • Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan T. Gross
  • Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
  • On Hitler's Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of A Nazi Childhood by Irmgard A Hunt
  • What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany by Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband
  • Sins of the Innocent: A Memoir by Mirelle Marokvia
  • The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn
  • German Boy: A Child in War by Wolfgang W. E. Samuel
  • The Holocaust: Personal Accounts edited by David Scrase and Wolfgang Mieder
  • All My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein
  • Wartime Lies by Loise Begley
  • Crabwalk by Gunter Grass
  • Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (read)

Euripides III:  Hecuba  translated by William Arrowsmith
Published: 425-424 B.C
Rating: 4

Tragedy upon tragedy and suffering upon suffering is this play's theme.

Queen Hecuba is wife of defeated King Priam of Troy. She has lost everything: her husband, her children, her city, her title and now lives as a Greek slave. As a mother, she has seen her son Paris, start the Trojan War by abducting Helen; her first born Hector, die at the hands of Achilles; her daughter Cassandra taken by Agamemnon and now faces the death of two other children.

I can relate to her willingness to die in place of her daughter, Polyxena:
Let me take her place upon the tomb;
kill me, be merciless to me, not her.
And when she sees the body of her son, Polydorus:
O Gods in heaven, let me die!
 What amazes me in reading the Greek tragedians are the timeless truths written centuries ago:
That man is happiest
who lives from day to day and asks no more,
garnering the simple goodness of  a life.

That no man on earth is truly free.
All are slaves of money or necessity,
Public opinion or fear of prosecution,
forces each one, against his conscience, to conform.

The Blessing: A Memoir by  Gregory Orr
Published: 2002
Rating: 4

I ordered this memoir after reading his Poetry as Survival and read it in two days.

He begins with a question that can only be asked years removed from the trauma: "Do I dare to say my brother's death was a blessing?"

I cannot imagine how hard it was for him to drudge up memories and feelings of the time leading up to the moment when he accidentally shot his brother.  While reading, all I could do was write OMG in the margins over and over. He was only twelve years old - just beginning adolescence. His dysfunctional family offered no solace or comfort. Then his mother died two years later. How could this kid survive? Through the power of poetry.

My memories of the horrible day when I found Josh are millisecond snapshots that sometimes pop up in my head. When certain images threaten to linger, I shut them down.

Next up - read his poetry.

Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Published 1855 (1st edition) and 1892 ("death-bed" edition)
Rating: 5

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Published: 2004 (posthumously)
Rating: 4

I bought this book a while ago and decided to read after seeing it in Bohjalian's list of books that inspired his Skeletons at the Feast. 

The story of how this book was published reminds me of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. It is a miracle that both manuscripts survived WWII.

A French novelist from Jewish descent had a vision of writing an epic, five-part novel in the same vein as Tolstoy's War and Peace.  She began feverishly writing the first two parts while living in occupied France in 1941-1942, instinctively knowing that time was short.

She was arrested and deported in July 1942, leaving her husband and two young daughters. She died in Auschwitz the following month. Her husband was arrested a few months later and before leaving, entrusted their oldest daughter Denise, with Irene's unfinished manuscript. He also perished in Auschwitz.

Serendipitously the girls and manuscript survived but it wasn't until decades later that Denise finally decided to read what she thought was her mother's journal. As she read, Denise realized that her mother had written a powerful novel of life in occupied France.

She painstakingly deciphered her mother's teeny handwriting and took it to a publisher who recognized the historical significance of the novel. Published over sixty years after Irene's death, Suite Francaise became an instant bestseller.    

To learn more, read these articles from the NY Times and the Telegraph.

Americans In Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass
Published: 2011
Rating: 4

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Published: 2014
Rating: 4

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

October 2014 Books

Edge of Eternity (Century Trilogy # 3) by Ken Follett
Published: 2014
Rating: 4
Author web site

Two years ago, I read the first two books in Follett's Century Trilogy (see post) which began a love for historical fiction and initiated a reading spree of World War II that continues to this day; also spawning interest in the subsequent Korean and Vietnam Wars.

I pre-ordered the book and began reading upon receipt.  Follett begins the narrative in 1961 and continues to follow the same families (American, British, German and Russian) introduced in the first two books.

In this lengthy book (1,098 pages), I was disappointed that the Korean War was completely skipped, but that is just par for the course - another example of how it is truly the "Forgotten War."  That said, Follett did not focus on the Vietnam War either, rather turning his attention to the Civil Rights movement in American and the Cold War with Russia, specifically the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Very gripping reading - I did not realize how close we were to a nuclear war which could've wiped us out.

The book ends with the events that led to the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, culminating in the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall.

I found this particular quote of a semi-retired CIA officer as he watched the fall of the Berlin Wall on television - very telling of our foreign policy decisions:
Everything we did was completely ineffective. Despite all our efforts Vietnam, Cuba, and Nicaragua became Communist countries. Look at other places where we tried to prevent Communism: Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Cambodia, Laos….None of them does us much credit. And now Eastern Europe is abandoning Communism with no help from us.
To say the twentieth century was tumultuous is an understatement,  Follett has done a great job bringing it to life and making this reader, formally uninterested in history, a convert.

Poetry as Survival by Gregory Orr
Published: 2002
Rating: 5+

I loved it - evidenced by the numerous dog-eared pages and marks (underline, circles, exclamation marks, asterisks and comments) within the margins.

How he found poetry and what it has meant in his life reminds me of Anne Sexton - both say that poetry had literally saved them.

When he was twelve, Orr was responsible for a hunting accident that killed his younger brother. While his parents did not blame him, they were unable to talk about it due to their profound grief. He was left unconsolable.  Then two years later, his mother died after a common medical procedure. Trauma upon trauma inflicted on this young adolescent's soul.

Lucky for him, a high school English teacher exposed him to poetry and he has not looked back.
I wrote a poem one day, and it changed my life. I had a sudden sense that the language in poetry was "magical," unlike language in fiction: that it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it. That first poem I wrote was a simple, escapist fantasy, but it liberated the enormous energy of my despair and oppression as nothing before had ever done. I felt simultaneously revealed to myself and freed of my self by the images and actions of the poem.
When someone, in the throes of a powerful and disturbing experience, turns instinctively to the writing or reading of a poem, it is because they sense the personal lyric can be a powerful aid in helping them survive and make sense of their experience.
Orr is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.  Reading this book gave me a sense of being in a seminar class on how poetry, specifically the personal lyric, has saved him.  It reads like a memoir, peppered with the poems and lines of poetry that he knows and loves. I have transposed these poems into my own personal poetry journal:
There is much more to say about this life changing (strong words but true!) book which I hope to do on Josh's blog.  

Would highly recommend!!!

Other books by Orr:
  • The Blessing: A Memoir (2002)
  • The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (2002)
  • Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved (2005)
  • How Beautiful the Beloved (2009)
  • River Inside the River: Poems (2013)
The Poet's Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family compiled by John Lithgow
Published: 2007
Rating: 4

This famous actor's love of poetry began at a young age - at the feet of his grandmother who could recite numerous poems from memory.

So this book is like a love offering - a poetry anthology of his all-time favorite poets who "lived on different continents, in different eras, their works are old and new, romantic and savage, comic and gloomy, orderly and chaotic, long and short."

Lithgow includes a short commentary on each of the fifty poets and what the chosen poem(s) means to him.  

He also includes quotes from the poets themselves - my favorites are below.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel….the moment you feel, you're nobody-but-yourself. To be nobody-but-yourself - in a world that is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.    E.E. Cummings 
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that it is poetry.  Emily Dickinson 
A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.    Robert Frost 
Look, then, into thine heart, and write!        Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
To elevate the soul, poetry is necessary.      Edgar Allen Poe
Emily Dickinson is one poet whom I find both difficult to understand and amazing when I do.  I found and bought The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson at my local library book sale a couple of years ago for the bargain price of $1.50. I have not delved into the book as yet but have rather run into Dickinson's poetry via other means - even finding an ambitious blogger who aims to read and write about all 1,789 poems. 

So when deciding which of the many poems in Lithgow's book I could transcribe here, how could I go wrong with Dickinson? 

There is no Frigate like a Book (#1263)
by Emily Dickinson

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry - 
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll - 
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.

Audiobook: The Churchills: In Love and War by Mary S. Lovell
Published: 2011
Rating: 5

I borrowed this from the library - a fascinating, in-depth, frank and somewhat gossipy look at the extended family of one of the greatest statesman ever: Winston Spencer Churchill.

Lovell's premise is that family is very important to a person and so to gain better understanding of WSC, one must look at his family.  What kind of family was he born into? How did he interact with his parents, grandparents, friends, siblings, girlfriends, political allies and enemies, wife, children?

WSC was a product of his time and class: post-Victorian, British aristocracy.  He was the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and cousin to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. His mother was an American beauty, Jennie Jerome.  His cousin married an American heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt whose first love was Winthrop Rutherford who eventually married Lucy Mercer, FDR's mistress.  Small world!

While primarily known as prime minister during the Second World War, I came to learn of his many other skills: novice pilot,  prolific writer, historian, painter, bricklayer, consummate politician and Nobel Prize winner (for Literature).  Also, I did not know he had served as prime minister twice.

Any subsequent reading of this man's life will be enriched by the insights gained from this well researched book.  

Saturday, September 20, 2014

September 2014 Books

Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters edited by Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames
Published: 1977
Rating: 5

Anne Sexton was a Pulitzer-winning poet who died by suicide at 45.  She was survived by her ex-husband and two girls.   Anne named her oldest, Linda as literary executor which was an extraordinary burden for a 21-year old.

The reading of all her mom's letters was a massive undertaking as Anne was a prolific correspondent who kept carbon copies of everything - how strange it must have been to be reading the thoughts from her vibrant, brilliant, mentally unstable deceased mother.  

Anne's letters were often like streams of consciousness - effusive, open, honest - complete with spelling and grammar errors.  To more accomplished poets, she would send her poems and ask for critiques, favors and references.  She gave few tidbits about her family, rather wishing for more time and less distraction to devote to her art.  Her letters sound as if she were talking on the phone - informal, conversational, almost child-like and immature.

She had a long correspondence with W.D Snodgrass who won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Heart's Needle, a poem that had a profound impact on her.  
...that when I read your poem, that first walked out at me, and grew like a bone inside my heart.
People are afraid of people, especially poets...I read "Heart's Needle" and I changed.  It made me see myself new. In seeing you, in feeling your marvelous restrained sense of immediate loss, I saw my own loss in a new color.
Poetry and poetry alone has saved me.
This type of impact was what she looked for and what she wanted to write:
 I rather like being slugged, to walk away from the poem with old wounds reopened...let the poem bruise me.
Creative people must not avoid the pain they get dealt....hurt must be examined like a plague.
Poetry need not be dull...
About her poetry:
Only in a poem is the emotion intensified, sharpened, made acute and sometimes more than I knew I knew...
You see, I am given to excess.  That's all there is to it.  I have found that I can control it best in a poem....if the poem is good then it will have the excess under is the core of the poem...there, like stunted fruit, but actual.
Words bother me. I think it is why I am a poet. I keep trying to force myself to speak of the things that remain mute inside.  My poems have only come when I have almost lost the ability to utter a word. To speak, in a way, of the unspeakable. To make an object out of the say what?  A final cry into the void.
It wasn't until I learned to work my guts out that a true poem came into being...fight for the poem. Put your energy into it. Force discipline upon madness....Push for the stars, or at least go back and push one poem all the way up there.
Inside I feel like a cooked broccoli...the heads that fall apart when you cut them. The only time I'm tough in my own mind is when I'm seized by a poem and then determined to conquer it and let it live it's own peculiar life. All my toughness goes into my writing. 
She does write openly about her depression - this quote was particularly poignant:
...not been able to write, been lonely, been sadder that sad toads would be if they are as sad as their blinking eyes seem to be.
 Four months before she committed suicide, she wrote the following to Erica Jong:
I keep feeling that there isn't one poem being written by any one of us - or a book, or anything like that. The whole life of us writers, the whole product I guess I mean, is the one long poem - a community effort if you will. It's all the same poem. It doesn't belong to any one writer - it's God's poem perhaps. Or God's people's poem....
...and if you can feel you are in touch with experience, if you've (so to speak) stuck your finger into experience and have got it right and can put it down so that others (even other experience tellers) can comprehend their own lives better, can crawl in closer to the truth of it, then you must get on with it! And keep right on.
After finishing, I wrote in by book journal:

WOW - what a woman - complicated.
What a life - tortured.
What an artist - ambitious, driven, obsessed. 

Next I plan to resume reading Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Middlebrook and Linda Gray Sexton's second memoir, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide.

 The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart
Published as trilogy: 1980
The Crystal Cave (1970)
The Hollow Hills (1973)
The Last Enchantment (1979)


 The Wicked Day (Merlin #4) by Mary Stewart
Published: 1983

While on vacation this week, I've been transported back in time to the magical and heroic days of Merlin the sorcerer and Arthur, bastard son of King Uther Pendragon who succeeded him as High King when he took the sword in the stone, the subsequent battles whereby the new King and his Companions subdued the factions and brought peace to his kingdom, his own bastard son Mordred by half-sister Morgause, the barren but much loved Queen Guinevere - the cast of characters are larger-than-life and believable.

I found this YouTube interview with Mary Stewart who passed away earlier this year. It is interesting that she did not intend to write a series but ended up doing so based on the request of her publishers and fans. I am glad she did. 

In the interview, she is talks about the TV series done by BBC and how she was pleased with the adaptation. I plan to watch as it is available via streaming Netflix. This is good as I found myself wishing that someone like Peter Jackson would make movies out of the books.

For anyone who is interested in the Arthurian legend, I would highly recommend.

Friday, August 15, 2014

August 2014 Books

So far, August has been a month of eclectic reading, anchored by a deeper interest in poetry - see post on Josh's blog.

Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins
Published: 2001
Rating: 4

I was so happy to find this at a used bookstore during our summer vacation on the Cape.  Despite owning three out of the four books that furnished the selected poems in this collection, I bought it for the fifteen new (to me) poems from The Apple That Astonished Paris and twenty additional poems.

by Billy Collins

From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus
I can hear the library humming in the night,
a choir of authors murmuring inside their books
along the unlit, alphabetical shelves,
Giovanni Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,
each one stitched into his own private coat,
together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.

I picture a figure in the act of reading,
shoes on a desk, head tilted into the wind of a book,
a man in two worlds, holding the rope of his tie
as the suicide of lovers saturates a page,
or lighting a cigarette in the middle of a theorem.
He moves from paragraph to paragraph
as if touring a house of endless, paneled rooms.

I hear the voice of my mother reading to me
from a chair facing the bed, books about horses and dogs,
and inside her voice lie other distant sounds,
and horrors of a stable ablaze in the night,
a bark that is moving toward the brink of speech.

I watch myself building bookshelves in college,
walls within walls, as rain soaks New England,
or standing in a bookstore in a trench coat.

I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves,
straining in circles of light to find more light
until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs
that we follow across a page of fresh snow;

when evening is shadowing the forest
and small birds flutter down to consume the crumbs,
we have to listen hard to hear the voices
of the boy and his sister receding into the woods.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Translated and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
Published: 1978
Rating: 5

Yoga and meditation have become an important and integral part of my self-care.  It is a surprising path, materializing at this five-year juncture of my grief journey.  I have taken an additional step by signing up for a 200-hour yoga training course at a local studio that begins next month.  This is one of several books on the assigned reading list. 

I've always associated yoga with the physical postures in a traditional yoga class such as downward dog, warrior one, child's pose, etc.  But as stated in the introduction of this book, the real practice of Yoga is the "understanding and complete mastery over the mind" and "for thousands of years the Yogis have probed the mysteries of the mind and consciousness…"

If there is a text or "bible" for yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali would be it; a systematic compilation of ideas and practices written by a person or persons known as Patanjali in the timeframe estimated between 5000 B.C to 300 A.D. 

Sutra literally means "thread".  There are 200 sutras or short sayings divided into four sections:  Contemplation, Practice, Accomplishments and Absoluteness. 

"Within the space of these two hundred short sutras, the entire science of Yoga is clearly delineated: its aim, the necessary practices, the obstacles you may meet along the path, their removal, and precise descriptions of the results that will be obtained from such practices."

The author encourages the slow, careful study and practice of the sutras.  I imagine this book will be an important reference on my yogic journey. 

Audiorecording The Voice of the Poet: Anne Sexton
Published: 2000
Rating: 4

Anne Sexton had a brilliant but tragic life.  Winner of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection, Live or Die, she began writing poetry in her late twenties, as a way of recovering from a mental breakdown after the birth of her second child.

She wrote in the manner of a "confessional poet" - searingly open, honest autobiographical poems which explore deep feelings of pain and anguish, often related to her battle with mental illness.

I liked the small book that accompanied the library-borrowed audio recording as it had the poems she read and some of her thoughts about poetry:
Poetry "should be a shock to the senses.  It should almost hurt." 
I don't think I write public poems.  I write very personal poems but I hope that they will become the central theme to someone else's private life. 
I would like to be a photographer if the camera could work the way fingers work.  I like to capture an instant.  A picture is a one-second thing - it's a fragile moment in time, I try to do it with words.
I found this YouTube video of Anne reading the powerful, haunting poem about suicidal ideation.

Wanting to Die
By Anne Sexton

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.
Then the almost unnameable lust returns.

Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention,
the furniture you have placed under the sun.

But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.

Twice I have so simply declared myself,
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,
have taken on his craft, his magic.

In this way, heavy and thoughtful,
warmer than oil or water,
I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.

I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the corneas and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.

Sill-born, they don't always die,
but dazzled, they can't forget a drug so sweet
that even children would look on and smile.

To thrust all that life under your tongue! - 
that, all by itself, becomes a passion.
Death's a sad bone; bruised, you'd say,

and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison.

Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,
raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon, 
leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,

leaving the page of the book carelessly open,
something unsaid, the phone off the hook
and the love, whatever it was, an infection. 

After learning about her life, I wanted to know what happened to her girls. What impact did the tragic death of their mother have on them?  

Her eldest daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, is also a writer and became the the literary executor of her mother's work at the young age of twenty-one.  I am currently reading her first memoir, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton.  It is difficult reading about what is was like to live with a mentally unstable, artistically possessed mother.

All of her poems can be found online at Poemhunter.

I have just ordered the following books:

Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook
Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrat in Letters edited by Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames
The Complete Poems: Anne Sexton 

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Published: 1999
Rating: 5

There is much that I can relate to in this novel and its protagonist, Gogol Ganguli whose parents immigrated to America from Calcultta as like his, my parents also immigrated from an Asian country, Korea.

How does a young couple with no familial support survive the difficult task of raising children in a completely foreign culture?

And the children who are born in the US - how do they navigate the pull between immersion in the strong American culture while at school and with their friends and the equally strong Asian culture while at home?

I love Lahiri's writing - it is clear, concise and poignant.  She is a master at creating full, round characters within a paragraph or two.  She places the reader in the scene, either observing or in the character's head so that we feel what they feel…we understand why they do what they do….we become empathic and compassionate readers in her hands.

Here is one of my favorite quotes - how Gogol's mother, who has recently given birth, likens being a foreigner to pregnancy:
For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is sort of a lifelong pregnancy - a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.  It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life had vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding.  Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect. 
I would highly recommend - especially if you have a large block of uninterrupted time as you will not want to put it down!

Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton by Linda Gray Sexton
Published: 1994
Rating: 5

This is a brutally honest, searing, soul-searching exploration of a daughter's life, bound to her mentally unstable, highly artistic mother who committed suicide when she was a 21-year old student at Harvard University.

Anne Sexton's mental illness defined their family - the suicide attempts, multiple hospitalizations, bizarre behavior, domestic violence and abuse of all kinds: mental, emotional, physical and sexual - until she ended it by sitting in her running car with the garage doors closed.  She was forty-five years old.

When I say brutally honest, this is what I mean:
I say these words to know them better: I wished for my mother to die.  As much as I dreaded her suicide, I also craved it. I longed for the freedom from the tyranny of her many neuroses that seemed, in that last year, to have overtaken her personality. By that last summer I did not like her anymore.  Anne was her mental illness.  Only once in a while did I see a glimmer of her shine through the demands of this noise child dressed in adult clothing. The woman I had loved was already gone. 
I say these words to know them for the first time and to admit my greatest guilt: in the lat months of my mother's life I chose to ignore her cry of loneliness.  I refused to maker her last days less painful. In the end, I left her to die alone. 
In the margins of the book, I wrote, "WOW - crazy honest - first and foremost with herself.  Takes guts.  Takes courage to admit the truth."

Anne named her literary executor and so Linda found herself involved in two big projects: editing Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrat in Letters, published just three years after Anne's death and assisting biographer Diane Middlebrook in her research and writing of Anne Sexton: A Biography, published in 1991.

She also became of fiction writer and published four novels:

  • Rituals
  • Mirror Images
  • Points of Light
  • Private Acts

In the introduction written in 2010, Linda Gray Sexton lets us know that this is part one - the examination of her mother's life and the affect on her own whereas part two, called Half in Love (Surviving the Legacy of Suicide), she "relentlessly examined my mother's death and my death wish."

For when Linda was turning forty-five years old, the same age as Anne was when she died, she also suffered from depressions and suicidal ideation which led to three attempts - how was she going to survive the terrible legacy of suicide?

I may have to take a break before starting Half In Love.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

July 2014 Books

July has been the most prolific month of reading.  I've spent a lot of time in the car, thankful the hours flew by while listening to Wild, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Seabiscuit.  I am also making a concerted effort to read Billy Collins's collections of poetry.

It has been a most satisfactory month.

WIld: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Published: 2012
Rating: 5
Author's web site

I listened to the audiobook and loved it so much, I purchased the book.

In essence, it is a memoir of a young woman's grief journey after the sudden death of her health-concious mother who died at forty-five from late-stage lung cancer. Cheryl was only 22 and the loss was devastating.

I am reminded once again of the catharsis that occurs when one reads of the suffering of others.  It brings your own pain to light which is paradoxically both painful and beneficial.

Written from the depths of her soul, Strayed is brutally honest and authentic with her thoughts, feelings and emotions, both funny and sad, making a raw and emotional read interspersed with humor.

I listened to a good chuck while on a business trip from Washington DC to Norfolk, VA and found myself chuckling as well as moved to tears.

On her quest to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl met various people whose interactions impacted her in some way.  One particular woman, Lou had picked her up hitchhiking.  She had a picture of her little boy, Luke, hanging from her rearview mirror.  He had died five years ago, at eight years old, after after being hit by a truck while riding his bike.  He held on for a week before succumbing to his injuries.

Lou told Cheryl that "after that happened, I died too.  Inside.  I look the same but I'm not the same in here.  I mean, life goes on and all that crap, but Luke dying took it out of me.  I try not to act like it, but it did.  It took the Lou out of Lou and I ain't getting it back."

I can relate.

Bringing Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell #2) by Hilary Mantel
Published: 2012
Rating: 4
2012 Man Booker Award

After reading Wolf Hall, I downloaded the ibook so as to continue the saga of Thomas Cromell's life in Henry VIII's court.

I found this to be a quick read, being familiar with Mantel's writing style and with all the characters surrounding Henry and his queen, Anne Boleyn.

As I reflect on the book now, it seems apropos to sum up all the drama and deaths depicted as "bad karma begets bad karma."

Anne is unable to produce a male heir for Henry and as her stature and worth decreases, she becomes more out of control in speech, manner and behavior causing Henry to bemoan his marriage and fix his gaze on a courtier whose personality is the complete opposite of the queen: young pious Jane Seymour.

No surprise, Henry turns to his "magician" Thomas Cromwell to get him out of the marriage so he can marry Jane.

This involves turning hearsay into fact resulting in the deaths of the queen, her brother and several other unfortunate souls.

There are several quotes about death that ring true:
Death is your prince, you are not his patron; when you think he is engaged elsewhere, he will batter down your door, walk in and wipe his boots on you. 
Between one beat of the heart and the next it is done. She knows nothing. She is in eternity. 

Inferno by Dan Brown (borrowed e-book)
Published: 2013
Rating: 4
Author's web site

The need to take a break from recent forays into memoir and historical fiction coincided with a timely article in the Washington Post (Apps for Reading Could be Your Netflix of Books) and a long weekend trip to Vermont over July 4th.

The article said an easy way to borrow from your public library was by using the Overdrive app which I had not heard of before.

In no time, I was connected to my local library, borrowed the e-book and was hooked.  I read on both my iPad while at the condo in Vermont and on my iPhone while on the way home (had to be connected to the Internet).

A very quick engrossing read as a typical Dan Brown scavenger-hunt, thriller/mystery with the familiar Robert Langdon in the center of a whirlwind of intrigue set in both Florence and Venice, Italy.

I have never been to Italy nor have read Dante's The Divine Comedy but after reading this book, I would like to do both.

The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins
Published: 2007
Rating: 5
Ted Talk video of him sharing his poems put to animation.


Taken from the inner flap of this wonderful collection:
"Playfulness, spare elegance, and wit epitomize the poetry of Billy Collins.  With his distinct voice and accessible language, America's two-term Poet Laureate had opened the door to poetry for countless people for whom it might otherwise have remained closed.  Like the book's title, Collins's poems are filled with mischief, humor, and irony….and is a window through which we see our lives as if for the first time."
I have a poetry journal which houses my favorite poems, my own fledgling creations and my notes about the art of writing poetry.   The title poem is one of several from this collection that I copied into my book. 

The Trouble With Poetry
by Billy Collins

The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night - 
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky - 

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives 
when we have compared everything in the world 
to everything else in the world,

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write more poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.

And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.

And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti - 
to be perfectly honest for a moment - 

the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.

Return from Tomorrow by George G. Ritchie, MD with Elizabeth Sherrill
Published: 1978
Rating: 5

This short account of a young man's NDE (near death experience) was lent by my daughter-in-law while on Cape Cod for vacation.  I brought it to the beach and read in one sitting.  The foreword is by Dr. Raymond Moody, the author of Life After Life, the classic book on NDE's.

George Ritchie died in an army hospital and came back to life nine minutes later. He was only 20 years old.  After recovering and completing his time in the army, he went to medical school and after practicing for 13 years as a medical doctor, he went back to school to become a psychiatrist.

His experience:

  • Out of body - he saw a physical body on the table, not realizing it was his.  
  • Conscious - he knew who he was; all his memories were intact.
  • Unbound by space and time - was able to travel instantaneously
  • Bright light 
  • Presence of Jesus who was all powerful and unconditional love
  • Life review - in rich detail.  He was asked, "What did you do with your life?"  At first, he did not understand the question as he was only 20 years old and had not experienced much.  But then he saw the real question was about love: "How much have you loved with your life? Have you loved others as I am loving you? Totally? Unconditionally?"
  • He saw disembodied beings following physical people begging forgiveness.  These, he learned, were suicides, "chained to every consequence of their act."
This last point was painful to read. My daughter-in-law told me that after she read the book, she told Josh that we are all OK and he should be at peace.  

On my beach chair, at the water's edge, while looking across the expansive ocean, I said, "RIP Josh.  We are okay and so are you."

The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins
Published: 1995
Rating: 4

On vacation, I spent most of my reading time immersed on the wonderful, eclectic, innovative, accessible poetry of Billy Collins.  Two poems from this collection were transcribed in my poetry journal, including this short one.

by Billy Collins

My pen moves along the page
like the snout of a strange animal
shaped like a human arm
and dressed in the sleeve of a loose green sweater.

I watch it sniffing the paper ceaselessly, 
intent as any forager that has nothing
on its mind but the grubs and insects
that will allow it to live another day.

It wants only to be here tomorrow,
dressed perhaps in the sleeve of a plaid shirt,
nose pressed against the page,
writing a few more dutiful lines

while I gaze out the window and imagine Budapest
or some other city where I have never been.

Question About Angels by Billy Collins
Published: 1991
Rating: 5

What I love about Collins's poems is how he takes an ordinary human experience like falling asleep while reading and makes it extraordinary.

Reading Myself to Sleep
by Billy Collins

The house is all in darkness except for this corner bedroom
where the lighthouse of a table lamp is guiding
my eyes through the narrow channels of print,

and the only movement in the night is the slight
swirl of curtains, the easy lift and fall of my breathing,
and the flap of pages as they turn in the wind of my hand.

Is there a more gentle way to go into the night
than to follow an endless rope of sentences
and then to slip drowsily under the surface of a page

into the first tentative flicker of a dream,
passing out of the bright precincts of attention
like cigarette smoke passing throughout a window screen?

All late readers know this sinking feeling of falling
into the liquid of sleep and then rising again
to the call of a voice that you are holding in your hands,

as if pulled from the sea back into a boat
where a discussion is raging on some subject or other,
on Patagonia or Thoroughbreds or the nature of war.

Is there a better method of departure by night
than this quiet bon voyage with an open book,
the sole companion who has come to see you off,

to wave you into the dark waters beyond language?
I can hear the rush and sweep of fallen leaves outside
where the world lies unconscious, and I can feel myself

dissolving, drifting into a story that will never be written,
letting the book slip to the floor where I will find it
in the morning when I surface, wet and streaked with

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Published: 2009
Rating: 4
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2000

I listened to this interview with Lahiri and wrote the following in my book journal:
  • creative process is like a leap of faith off a cliff - one is creating something out of nothing
  • she does not know where her stories come from except they emerge from a place deep within
  • works on her stories for years 
  • the process of creating - trying something to see if it works, discarding, trying something else, refining to make it better - is what she loves.  The by-product is the finished story. 
  • Very thoughtful author - of her own work and the work of others. 
I would like to read her other books:
  • The Namesake
  • Unaccustomed Earth
  • The Lowland
Her 6 favorite reads on the Barnes and Noble web site.

Audiobook: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Published: 2010
Rating: 5
Author's web site

I borrowed this audiobook from the library in anticipation of two long car trips and was very glad I did.

The book is about one woman's quest to uncover the truth regarding Henrietta Lacks, who, while dying of cervical cancer was the unwitting donor of those cancer cells, named HeLa.  It was the 1950's and researchers were looking for cells which could be easily grown in labs.  They hit the jackpot with HeLa.

These cells were instrumental in developing the polio vaccine, as well as deepening knowledge of how cancer and viruses work and even how cells are affected by outer space travel.  They have been used in advancing gene mapping, cloning and in vitro fertilization.  The cells have been bought and sold by the billions over the past decades, long after her death in 1951.  She was only 31 years old.

All the while, Henrietta's family (spouse and four surviving children) were not only completely unaware but were so poor, they did not receive proper medical treatment and drugs.

In this interesting interview, Skloot says her intention was to write a book in the style called Creative Nonfiction.  I have also seen this named "Nonfiction Novel".  The first book that I read in this genre (and loved) was Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, published in 1966.

She also speaks to the problem of how to weave three narratives into one.  She used a braid-like structure and found specific inspiration from the 1999 movie, The Hurricane. 

Ten years of research went into the book and according to her voluminous web site, the HeLa story continues.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
Published: 1999
Rating: 5

While on vacation at Cape Cod, I always make a point to visit as many used bookstores as possible.  This year, I found some great books at two shops, one of which was Seabiscuit.  This was a lucky find as I've been waiting for our local library to get the audio book, especially after listening to Hillenbrand's second book, Unbroken in the car last summer (see post).

Despite having started the book, I snatched up the long-awaited audiobook before a business trip to Norfolk (6 hour round trip).  Good thing I had the book as the audio book was an abridged version.  I did not realize this until to my chagrin, I noticed the narrator skipping over important sections.

Side note:  why do publishers do this?  What is the point of not reading the entire book?  How does one decide what to delete?  I will avoid abridged versions in the future.

She writes in the Creative Nonfiction or Nonfiction Novel genre described above.  The story is about three men and one horse, whose destinies came together for a short period of time, during the height of the Depression and prior to the outbreak of WWII.  All four (including horse) overcame numerous challenges to rise to the top of the Thoroughbred racing world. It is a rags-to-riches/Cinderalla story that captivated a nation's heart, reminding them that in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds, victory can be achieved.

I want to re-watch the 2003 film based on the book.

I will now read any book by Laura Hillenbrand.  According to this Washington Post article (Nov. 28, 2010), she suffers terribly from chronic fatigue syndrome but did not let it stop her from researching Louis Zamperini's story in Unbroken.   She is an example of resiliency and courage depicted in her books.  I hope she finds respite from this debilitating disease and finds another captivating subject for a future book.

Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins
Published: 1998
Rating: 4

As one who keeps a personal journal, I loved this poem.

by Billy Collins

Ledger of the head's transactions,
log of the body's voyage,
it rides all day in a raincoat pocket,
ready to admit any droplet of thought,
nut of maxim,
narrowest squint of an observation.

It goes with me
to a gallery where I open it to record a note on red and the birthplace of Corot,
into the tube of an airplane
so I can take down the high dictation of clouds,
or on a hike in the woods where a young hawk
might suddenly fly between its covers.

And when my heart is beating
too rapidly in the dark,
I will go downstairs in a robe,
open it up to a blank page,
and try to settle on the blue lines
whatever it is that seems to be the matter.

Net I tow beneath the waves of the day,
giant ball of string or foil,
it holds whatever I uncap my pen to save:
a snippet of Catullus, 
a passage from Camus,
a tiny eulogy for the evening anodyne of gin,
a note on what the kingfisher looks like when he swims.

And there is room in the margins
for the pencil to go lazy and daydream
in circles and figure eights,
or produce some illustrations,
like Leonardo in his famous codex - 
room for a flying machine,
the action of a funnel,
a nest of pulleys,
and a device that is turned by water,

room for me to draw
a few of my own contraptions,
inventions so original and visionary
that not even I - genius of the new age - 
have the slightest idea what they are for.