Saturday, July 7, 2012

June 2012 Books

June has started a fascinating journey into the world of published diaries; a close cousin to the memoir, which has been a very important genre on my grief journey.  I expect diaries will be as well since the bibliographies of the books below have significantly added to my wish list and TBR pile.

Revelations - Diaries of Women edited by Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter
Published: 1974
Rating: 4

I ordered this book from Amazon after reading this post on A Work in Progress.  Revelations contains excerpts from 32 female diarists.  Some are well known such as Virginia Woolf,  Anne Frank and Anais Nin.  Many others were not, at least to me.  It was interesting to read thoughts from the wives/sisters of famous authors: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, William Wordsworth and Henry James.

I have become an avid diarist since my beloved son's death and it has literally saved me.  The blank pages of my journals have taken raw and uncensored thoughts, feelings and emotions day or night, without complaint or comment.  Many of my posts on his blog have their genesis in my journal.

Here are my favorite quotes:

"When I am excited or sad nothing soothes me like my diary.  If I am very happy my joy calms down, subsides whilst I write.  My diary has become indispensable to me."  Nelly Ptaschkina, Feb 23, 1918 (15 years old).

"I shall at least have my own way and it may bring relief as an outlet to that geyser of emotions, sensations, speculations and reflections which ferments perpetually within my poor carcass for its sins; so here goes, my first Journal!"  Alice James, May 31, 1889 (41 years old).

"I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart."  Anne Frank

"I had to find one place of truth, one dialogue without falsity.  This is the role of the diary." Anais Nin

After reading this book, I have added a number of books to my wish list.

First batch of books ordered from Amazon on 6/11/12:
  • The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, Vol 1, 1889 - 1910 because I loved the Anne of Green Gable series
  • A Brief History of Diaries: From Pepys to Blogs by Alexandra Johnson
  • Leaving a Trace: On Keeping A Journal by Alexandra Johnson
  • The Hidden Writer: Diaries and the Creative Life by Alexandra Johnson
  • Writers and Their Notebooks by Diana Raab
  • The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long
  • Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Published: 2011
Rating: 5
Winner of 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction
Author's web site

I was recently re-reading the section of The Iliad where Homer's describes Achilles' despair upon hearing of Patroklos' death, and his subsequent merciless and blood-thirsty revenge upon the Trojans and Hektor in particular.  Once again, as at the time of the initial reading, I wished that Homer told us why Achilles behaved in such an extreme manner.  After all, they were in a war and Patroklos went out to battle in Achilles' armor...surely he knew that Patroklos could die.

Then I remembered reading a favorable Washington Post review of The Song of Achilles that made me think at the time, I should read this.  Maybe it will shed some light on Achilles' profound grief.

I downloaded a sample on my iPad and was hooked.  A couple clicks later, I bought the e-book and couldn't put it down.  It definitely helped that I was familiar with The Iliad.  I loved seeing familiar characters such as the wily and manipulative Odysseus in the scene where he tricks Achilles into revealing himself.

Miller's book charts the evolution of Achilles' and Patroklos' relationship from boyhood friends to soul mates and lovers. And how Achilles' love was "all in" - he loved Patroklos with all his heart, soul, mind and body.  So much so, there was no room for anyone else.

So Achilles' grief at the death of his one true love made perfect sense for it reflects the truism that I have experienced:  Grief is proportionate to love.  In other words: extreme love means extreme grief.  See post on Josh's blog.

Miller's writing is so descriptive.  Told from the point of view of Patroklos, I could see, hear, feel, smell and taste everything that he did - see quotes below.
I had not realized how intimate supplication was, how closely we would be pressed. His ribs were sharp beneath my cheek; the skin of his legs was soft and thin with age. 
Achilles returns to the tent, where my body waits. He is red and red and rust-red, up to his elbows, his knees, his neck, as if he has swum in the vast dark chambers of a heart and emerged, just now, still dripping.
Leaving A Trace: On Keeping A Journal by Alexandra Johnson
Published: 2001
Rating: 4

In this small, compact book, Johnson strives to answer two questions: how to keep a journal and what can be done with all the material within them.

She encourages newbies to have the goal of writing a couple of times a week, varying where and when one writes.  She provides a number of exercises and prompts to help jump-start any diarist with the reminder that "journals allow one to reflect, to step outside oneself.  They create a third space, an invaluable pause between the conscious and unconscious self."  She believes that a journal is "how memory and meaning finally meet" to give the writer a perspective on his/her life.

It is important to be honest and truthful in the journal.  For Joyce Carol Oates, the "journal is the ideal place of refuge for the inner self because it constitutes a counterworld: a world to balance the other."  Elizabeth Berg says "it's very important that no one read my journal but me.  You need a mirror where you can stick your stomach out all the way."  Joan Didion writes "entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means."

Johnson shares how some diarists have come up with creative ways to index their journals in order to find material quickly.  For example, a retired lawyer's index was critical to the writing a memoir of his WWII experiences.

The second half of the book focuses on how to take the raw material in journals and revise them into a creative work - be it a sketch, personal essay or memoir.   She defines "creative nonfiction" as the genre in which the writer will use "the facts of a life, the techniques of fiction, and the resonant imagery of poetry" to "move from notes to narrative, from private to public voice."

I have added more books to my wish list.  Ones that I am very interested in purchasing right away are:
  • An Interrupted Life by Etty Hillesum
  • The Art of the Personal Essay by Philip Lopate
  • Memory Slips by Linda Cutting
Writers and Their Notebooks edited by Diana Raab
Published: 2010
Rating: 4
Author's web site

A easy-to-read collection of essays by writers who "use their notebooks to inspire, record, and document anything and everything which may nurture or spark their creative energy."

Two quotes from Ilan Stavan's "Using My Notebook" have gone into my journal: "Truth is what literature is about: the conviction that through words, not just any words but the right words, and whatever else accompanies them, I might reach the essence of things" and "I don't intend for my notebooks ever to be published.  I feel naked in them - comfortably naked, yes, but naked nonetheless."

Zan Bockes uses her journal to assist in the ongoing battle with her bipolar disorder.  "My journal remains my closest and most consistent has seen me through tumultuous times, enhance my honesty with myself and my understanding of pain.  Basically, I survive to write because I write to survive."

I related the most to Kathleen Gerard's essay called "Clearing the Decks".  At fourteen, she began writing in a journal to cope with her father's sudden death. "My journal became a safe place where my voice and my feelings could finally be heard, and my perceptions transforms into a combination of trusted friend, therapist, and spiritual journal becomes a form of written meditation - where I let go of all inhibition until what's important is sifted from what is not.  In essence, I purge some of the emotional clutter piling up inside of me until I finally clear the decks enough to illuminate my soul."

I like how Rebecca McClanahan compares her journal to a confessional booth that "never just will never betray our confidence....the journal is our punching bag, our padded cell.  It absorbs the blows.   Sometimes we confess. We enter the booth, and the journal lifts the partition.  No matter if it's been three weeks since our last confession, or three years. the journal welcomes us home."

Eventually, I might like to read the published journals of the following writers:

  • Louisa May Alcott
  • John Cheever
  • Emerson and Thoreau
  • John Fowles
  • Andre Gide
  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Ayn Rand
  • George Sand
  • May Sarton
  • Sei Shonagon
  • Virginia Woolf
The memoir I want to purchase now is Los Angeles Diaries by James Brown.

A Brief History of Diaries: From Pepys to Blogs by Alexandra Johnson
Published: 2010
Rating: 3

I was hoping for more in this short book, especially about blogs.  Having read her other two books this month, I could've given this one a pass.

The Hidden Writer: Diaries and the Creative Life by Alexandra Johnson
Published: 2010
Rating: 4

Johnson offers seven well-written sketches that delve deeper into the lives, motives, practices and impact of the following diarists:

  • Child prodigy Marjory Fleming's diary written inspired Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. 
  •  Sonya and Leo Tolstoy who read each other's diaries - a practice that did not bode well for a happy union.
  • Alice James - sickly and frail sister of famous novelist Henry James
  • Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf - two friends and rivals; so different and yet so similar
  • Anais Nin - one of the most famous diarist of all time
  • May Sarton - most known for Journal of Solitude which was written later in life and explored such themes as solitude, aging and illness. 
Favorite quotes: 

"The false persona I had created for the enjoyment of my friends, the gaiety, the buoyant, the receptive, the healing person, always on call, always ready with sympathy, had to have its other existence elsewhere.  In the diary I would reestablish the balance....I could let out my demons" (Anais Nin).

"Pain is the great teacher.  I woke before dawn with this thought.  Joy, happiness, are what we take and do not question.  They are beyond question, maybe.  A matter of being.  But pain forces us to think, and to make connections, to sort out what is what, to discover what has been happening to cause it.  And, curiously enough, pain draws us to other human beings in a significant way, whereas joy or happiness to some extent, isolates" (May Sarton).

"The writer, at his desk alone, must create his own momentum, draw enthusiasm up out of his own substance, not just once, when he may feel inspired, but day after day when he does not" (May Sarton).

Second batch of books ordered from Amazon on 6/20/2012:

  • A Book of One's Own by Thomas Mallon
  • The Assassin's Cloak: An Anthology of the World's Greatest Diarist edited by Alan and Irene Taylor
  • The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present  edited by Phillip Lopate
  • Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini
  • The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir by James Brown
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
  • Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children by Kenneth Koch
  • Memory Slips: A Memoir of Music and Healing by Linda K Cutting
Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
Published: 1688
Rating: 5

For a woman in the stifling and sexist 17th century England, Aphra Behn lived a colorful life: she traveled in the West Indies, married a Dutch merchant and was widowed soon after, worked as a spy in Antwerp for Charles II, spent time in debtor's prison and became the first English woman who wrote poetry, novels and plays for a living.

In her famous extended essay, A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf gives props to Behn saying, " All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."

I loved this novella, but be warned;  it is a tragedy amongst all tragedies.  Surprising accessible - once you get used to the longer-than-normal paragraph length and randomly capitalized words within the sentence - the story moves at break neck speed.  I was about one-third of the way through when, on a sleepless night, I got up at 4am to read thinking that it would make me sleepy.  Fat chance - once I got back into the story, I couldn't put it down, nor could I stop thinking about the horrifically tragic ending.

A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon
Published: 1987
Rating: 4

Mallon divides diarists into the following categories and offers many examples and snippets within each - complete with his own witty and sarcastic commentary.  His goal was to "offer a brief tour of some of the books that have excited or annoyed or perplexed me most; to suggest the huge varieties of diaries that get written; to consider why they're kept; and - most of all - to think about the people who keep them."  I would say "mission accomplished."
  • Chroniclers - Samuel Pepys, Virginia Woolf
  • Travelers - Lewis & Clark
  • Pilgrims - Thoreau, May Sarton, Anais Nin, C.S. Lewis
  • Creators - James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, V. Woolf, Edgar Degas, Charles Darwin, Leonardo Da Vinci and numerous others
  • Apologists - numerous politicians
  • Confessors - sites examples of adolescent diaries
  • Prisoners - Anne Frank, Albert Speer (Hitler's architect), Alice James
Favorite quotes in the preface:
"....diary writing is the poor man's art."
"...diaries are the flesh made word."
The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long
Published: 2010
Rating: 5
Author's web site

I stumbled upon this book while on Amazon, and took at closer look after noticing reviewers had given it a full 5-stars.  All said it was a "must have" for both novice (me) and experienced writers; I would agree.

Long is a big believer in learning to write from other great writers, quoting Robert Louis Stevenson: "I have played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Baudelaire, and to Obermann.....That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write."   And her own words: "...our core strategy, our quintessential tool, is to learn craft from models of virtuoso writing....Our best teachers are the masterworks we scrutinize."

Not surprisingly, her book is peppered with quotes; one of which was found in the chapter "The Simple Sentence", which stopped me in my tracks, became a journal writing prompt and a blog post

At her suggestion, I bought a small lined notebook which is now my Lexicon; the place to collect words and phrases.  And not just any word, but only the "good words, the juicy words, the hot words."   Since starting, I am paying far more attention to words while reading and am amazed at how many "juicy" words exist - like evanescent, repose, eschew, commodious, fecund and proclivity - to name just a few.   The following phrases have made it into my Lexicon: "...the color of a dried moth's wing...the jagged line of my salt-stained boots....cigarette-leg capris....his eyes are like shutters clicking on..."  Who knew it could be so much fun being a word/phrase collector?

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Published: 1814
Rating: 5

Having started and stopped this book twice - for no particular reason except that it was hard to find the 2 hours of undistracted reading time needed to get a handle on the characters and plot of this more serious, expansive Austen work - more drastic measures were needed. Therefore, on a recent business trip to Charlotte, NC from my home in Northern Virginia, it was the only book I took on the plane.

I loved it.   So many themes are explored:  the relationship between marriage and money, of which Austen is unparalleled; class and education; character and morality; the role and importance of the clergy; sibling love and rivalry; and the clash between the new secular-based, libertine views versus the more traditional, devout and conservative way of life.

The protagonist and heroine, Fanny Price, reminded me of Pamela in Samuel Richardson's novel, Pamela or Virtue Rewarded as both were virtuous young women of no means to speak of, being pursued by amoral men.  Apparently Richardson was one of her favorite authors.

Thanks to Priscilla Long's book, The Writer's Portable Mentor, I am on the look-out for superb, hard-working sentences where each word has a purpose.   I found many such sentences in Mansfield Park which is another testament to Jane Austen's masterful writing.   Some examples are below:

I love this description of the 10-year old Fanny:
She was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke, her countenance was pretty.
And of the ego-centric, lazy Mrs. Bertram:
To the education of her daughters, Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention.  She had not time for such cares.  She was a woman who spent her days in sitting nicely dressed on a sofa, doing some long piece of needle-work, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to inconvenience, guided in everything important by Sir Thomas, and in smaller concerns by her sister. 
Fanny had a "room of one's own" in Mansfield Park and in writing about how she spends her time there, Austen gives the reader a glimpse into Fanny's generous and forgiving heart:
She could go there after any thing unpleasant below, and find immediate consolation in some pursuit, or some train of thought at hand. - Her plants, her books - of which she had been a collector, from the first hour of her commanding a shilling - her writing desk, and her works of charity and ingenuity, were all within her reach; - or if indisposed for employment, if nothing but musing would do, she could scarcely see an object in that room which had not an interesting remembrance connected with it. - Everything was a friend, or bore her thoughts to a friend; and though there had been sometimes much of suffering to her - though her motives had been often misunderstood, her feelings disregarded, and her comprehension under-valued; though she had known the pains of tyranny, of ridicule, and neglect, yet almost every recurrence of either had led to something consolatory; her aunt Bertram had spoken for her, or Miss Lee had been encouraging, or what was yet more frequent or more dear - Edmund had been her champion and her friend, - he had supported her cause, or explained her meaning, he had told her not to cry, or had given her some proof of affection which make her tears delightful - and the whole was now so blended together, so harmonized by distance, that every former affliction had its charm.
I have one more Austen novel to read - Northanger Abbey.  I wonder where it will fit in my ranking below:
  1. Pride and Prejudice tied with Persuasion
  2. Sense and Sensibility tied with Mansfield Park
  3. Emma
Memory Slips: A Memoir of Music and Healing by Linda Cutting
Published: 1997
Rating: 4

A moving and courageous memoir of a talented concert pianist who, after the suicide death of a second sibling, must face her own memories of unspeakable abuse throughout her childhood.   Struggling with suicidal ideation, she has these words by her desk: "Stay alive so you can tell."  They were told to her by a psychiatrist who was a Holocaust survivor and talked to her about "the importance of bearing witness, especially in the face of my brother's deaths....At times, those words have provided the courage to keep on living and writing."

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