Monday, July 30, 2012

July 2012 Books

July is turning out to be a month of memoirs and classics.....

The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir by James Brown
Published: 2003
Rating: 4

A gritty, unflinching and searing memoir by writer James Brown of his dysfunctional family; the suicides of his only siblings, an older brother Barry and older sister Marilyn; and his own intense addiction to drugs and alcohol.

The prose of Brown's heartbreaking story is strong, clear and cutting as he describes unspeakable sorrows.  But there is humor as well.  The account of the show-down between himself and Daisy, his wife's pot-bellied pig, is hilarious.

A quick but unforgettable read.

The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett
Published: 2011
Rating: 5

This enjoyable 62 page ibook was read in one night.  Patchett comes across as a refreshingly folksy, down-to-earth, self-depreciating and humble author; despite winning the prestigious 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner award for Bel Canto.  I have yet to read her novels such as Run, The Magician's Assistant and new novel, State of Wonder; however, I did read her poignant memoir, Truth and Beauty, which recounts her friendship with poet and writer Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face.  

Words of wisdom from her own writing life:
I would say that a deep, early love of poetry should be mandatory for all writers.  A close examination of language did me nothing but good. 
Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art, you must master the craft.  If you want to write, practice writing. 
Over the years I've come to realize that I write the book I want to read, the one I can't find anywhere.
What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it's the closest thing to being God that you're ever going to get.  All the decisions are yours.  You decide when the sun comes up.  You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car.  You have to make all the leaves and all the trees and then sew the leaves onto the trees.  You make the entire world. 

Othello by William Shakespeare
Published: 1622
Rating: 4

Named for the unsuspecting and gullible hero Othello, Shakespeare's play is really about Iago; a most sinister, manipulative, back-stabbing, devious villain.

Read full post.

Audiocourse:  The Aeneid of Virgil by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver
Great Course link

Loved it - see this post.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Published: 1964
Rating: 4

Hemingway has been on my list of "to read" authors for a long time.  I've always looked for this book during library sales or at used bookstores with no luck.  So when it was on a carousel titled "Living in Paris" at my local library, I snatched it up.  It is a quick and interesting read about a literary expat's life in Paris after WWI.

Read full post.

Oedipus the King in The Complete Plays of Sophocles trans. by Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb
Originally published: 429 BC
Bantam Classic Edition: 1982
Rating: 4

I agree completely with this synopsis in the introduction by Moses Hades: "Oedipus is a masterful play; but what gives it conviction and force is that plot and characterization combine in mutual support to produce the overwhelming tragic power which is the essence of the drama.  The construction is flawless.  Each new episode flows naturally out of what has gone before, and each is made plausible by the character of its participants."

Read full post.

Antigone in The Complete Plays of Sophocles trans. by Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb
Published: 442 BC
Bantam Classic Edition: 1982
Rating: 4

Antigone is a tragedy whereby two people acting on their convictions; Creon, King of Thebes and Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, clash - with devastating consequences.

The king refuses to grant one of her brothers a proper burial saying, "Polyneices....leave him unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame."   Antigone solicits the help of her sister to bury their brother but Ismene will not defy the King's decree: "Nay, we must remember, first, that we were born women who should not strive with men; next that we are ruled of the stronger, so that we must obey in these things, and in things still harder."

Antigone's heroic response: "Be what you will, I will bury him: well for me to die in doing so.  I shall rest, a loved one whom I have loved, sinless in my crime; for I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living, for in that world I shall abide forever."

By the end of the tragedy Creon is devastated by three needless suicides; prompting this warning from the chorus:
Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness, and reverence for the gods must be inviolate.  Great words of prideful men are ever punished with great blows, and, in old age, teach the chastened to be wise. 

The Aeneid by Virgil - translated by Robert Fitzgerald
Published: 19 BC
Rating: 5

Reading The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer and The Aeneid by Virgil has been a fascinating education in ancient Greek and Roman culture and mythology.

Read full post

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Aeneid by Virgil

Audiocourse:  The Aeneid of Virgil by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver
Great Course link

I LOVE her lectures.  She has a way of making ancient epic poems such as Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey and Virgil's The Aeneid  accessible to someone like myself, who has absolutely no background in ancient history or literature.

I checked this out from my local library for a recent business trip to Virginia Beach.  The 4-hour drive flew by as I listened to Professor Vandiver's overview of Roman history before and during the time that Virgil was writing this epic.  She also explains the reason for The Aeneid; it gave the Romans their own mythology and explanation of the founding of Rome and the Roman people, which Virgil ties to the ancient Greek story of the Trojan War, of which they were very familiar.

Interestingly, this masterpiece was almost lost.  On this deathbed, Virgil asked for his almost complete epic to be burned.   Fortuitously, Augustus forbade it.  Vandiver says she gets "a chill up her spine" every time she thinks of how close we came to never having The Aeneid, one of the most influential pieces of literature in all of Western civilization.

I have just started Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Aeneid and am hooked. In particular, the account of the sack of Troy in Book II, told from Aeneas' point of view, is haunting.

The Aeneid by Virgil - translated by Robert Fitzgerald
Published: 19 BC
Rating: 5

Reading The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer and The Aeneid by Virgil has been a fascinating education in ancient Greek and Roman culture and mythology.

Virgil was commissioned by Augustus to write a historical mythology describing the founding of the Roman people.  He does so by taking a secondary character in The Iliad, Aeneas, whose opaque destiny is within these short lines:
His fate is to escape to ensure that the great line of Dardanus may not unseeded perish from the world.  Zeus has turned against the family of Priam.  Therefore Aeneas and his sons, and theirs, will be lords over the Trojans born hereafter (The Iliad, Book XX).
At the end of Book VIII of The Aeneid, Aeneas receives armor crafted by Vulcan (Hephaestus), who did the same for Achilles in The Iliad. . His shield depicts the future history of Rome: twin boys with a mother wolf (Romulus and Remus, descendants of Aeneas who founded the city of Rome) and the Battle of Actium, the site where Augustus Caesar defeats Antony and Cleopatra, to name a few.
All these images on Vulcan's shield,
His mother's gift, were wonders to Aeneas.
Knowing nothing of the events themselves,
He felt joy in their pictures, taking up
Upon his shoulder all the destined acts
And fame of his descendants. 
I love this image of Aeneas hoisting up his magnificent shield and in doing so, literally taking Rome's fate, future and fame on his shoulders.  The definition of a true hero!

The Aeneid is divided into twelve books: the first six are like The Odyssey; the story of Aeneas' wanderings and adventures after the sack of Troy and the second six are like The Iliad; an accounting of the war between the Aeneas and Trojans against the Latins of Italy.

 In Book II, Aeneas tells of the Greek's successful ruse to enter the city (infamous Trojan horse) and the subsequent sack of his beloved city.   
Grief everywhere,
Everywhere terror, and all shapes of death....
For the first time that night, inhuman shuddering
Took me, head to foot.
Just like Homer, the war scenes from Virgil are graphic and gory:
Turnus spoke and rose to full height, sword in air,
Then cleft the man's brow square between the temples
Cutting his head in two - a dreadful gash
Between the cheeks all beardless.  Earth resounded
Quivering at the great shock of his weight
As he went tumbling down in all his armor,
Drenched with blood and brains, in equal halves
His head hung this and that way from his shoulders (Book IX).
Virgil's use of simile is also reminiscent of Homer.  This is one of my favorites:
...As a wild bull at bay
will give a fearsome bellow and whet his horn
To fury on a tree-trunk, striking blows
Against the wind, kicking up spurts of sand
In prelude to the fight.  Likewise, meanwhile,
Aeneas, fierce in his maternal armor,
Whetted his edge for war....(Book XII).
My understanding of the three major epics by Homer and Virgil has been greatly enhanced by listening to Professor Vandiver's audiocourses produced by the Teaching Company.  I would highly recommend them.

I would like to know more about Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen whose relationships with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony changed history so have started Stacy Schiff's biography.  I also plan to read Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Oedipus the King by Sophocles

Oedipus the King in The Complete Plays of Sophocles trans. by Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb 
Originally published: 429 BC
Bantam Classic Edition: 1982

Rating: 4

I agree completely with this synopsis in the introduction by Moses Hades: "Oedipus is a masterful play; but what gives it conviction and force is that plot and characterization combine in mutual support to produce the overwhelming tragic power which is the essence of the drama.  The construction is flawless.  Each new episode flows naturally out of what has gone before, and each is made plausible by the character of its participants."

Because of Oedipus' paternalistic feelings towards his kingdom, he vows to do whatever it takes to stop the plague - little knowing it would cost him everything.

Fate is a key and recurring theme in these ancient works.  And that no one, not even a god, can by-pass her.  So the inevitability of Fate's decree - be it the founding of Rome by Aeneas or the death of Hector at Achilles' hand or the eventual return of Odysseus to his home - hooks the reader, who wants to see how Fate will have her way.

It is difficult to describe the tension that builds while reading Oedipus.  I have OMG (oh my God) written in the margins at various places and physically felt Oedipus' disbelief and growing horror when hit by the truth of his lineage, his marriage, his children, his Fate.

Tragedies by the ancient Greek playwrights and Shakespeare seem to always have suicides.  The reasons vary: for lost honor in Sophocles' Ajax; for love in Romeo and Juliet; out of guilt and madness in Macbeth; out of grief over a lost love and father in Hamlet; and in Oedipus, to flee from the unbearable truth.

The chorus has the last word and it is a doozy:
Dwellers in our native Thebes, behold, this is Oedipus, who knew the famed riddle and was a man most mighty; what citizen did not gaze with envy on his fortunes?  Behold into what a stormy sea of dread trouble he has come.  Therefore, while our eyes wait to see the destined final day, we must call no one happy who is of mortal race, until he has crossed life's border, free from pain.

Othello by William Shakespeare

Othello by William Shakespeare
Published: 1622
Rating: 4

Named for the unsuspecting and gullible hero Othello, Shakespeare's play is really about Iago; a most sinister, manipulative, back-stabbing, devious villain. He is #4 on The Telegraph's list of "50 Greatest Villains in Literature" usurped by Satan in John Milton's Paradise Lost, Samuel Whiskers from Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, and Cruella De Vil in Dodie Smith's 101 Dalmations. 

Iago was a master at reading people, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and uncovering vulnerabilities that he exploited to his own ends.  At the same time, no one knew him.  Over and over, he was called "honest Iago" by Othello, Desdemona and Cassio; the very ones being spun into his web of lies.   By virtue of their own honest, good hearts, they could not conceive the trusted Iago, could be at the root of such evil and treacherous actions.

This reminds me of similar gullibility and resulting treachery in the Aeneid, when the Trojans believed the poor Greek prisoner's story and brings the huge, wooden horse into the city, filled with Greek warriors which led to the sack of Troy, and Oroonoko when the hero believes the white slave owners and gives himself up, only to be whipped mercilessly, short of death.   

In the plotting of Othello's demise, Iago was the consummate actor, producer and director.  He would have succeeded except for the disclosure made by his wife, Emilia.  As in all Shakespeare's tragedies that I have read thus far, many dead bodies litter the final scenes, but surprisingly in Othello, one survives.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Published: 1964
Rating: 4

Hemingway has been on my list of "to read" authors for a long time.  I've always looked for this book during library sales or at used bookstores with no luck.  So when it was on a carousel titled "Living in Paris" at my local library, I snatched it up.  It is a quick and interesting read about a literary expat's life in Paris after WWI.

It was during this time that Hemingway made friends with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford and spent time with James Joyce; all of whom are within the pages of A Moveable Feast. 

This quote from Hemingway to a friend in 1950 is on the title page:
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
I like Hemingway's clear, concise, sometimes terse, sometimes elongated writing style.  Some of my favorite quotes:

His description upon meeting a nasty acquaintance of Ezra Pound.  In particular, what he says about the  eyes is crazy good.
He had a face that minded me of a frog, not a bullfrog but just any frog, and Paris was too big a puddle for him....Some people show evil as a great race horse shows breeding.....I tried to break his face down and describe it but I could only get the eyes.  Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.    
On writing:
All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence you know.  
Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about.  I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.  
He learned "never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it."
On the chapter title page called "Scott Fitzgerald":
His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings.  At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it has been effortless. 
I have the following books on my wish list:

  • The Sun Also Rises (1926)
  • Man Without Women (1927)
  • A Farewell to Arms (1929) - about the Italian front
  • Death in the Afternoon (1932) - about bullfighting
  • Green Hills of Africa (1935) - about hunting big game in Africa
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) - Spanish Civil War
  • The Old Man and the Sea (1952) - Pulitzer Prize Winner in 1953
Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 "for his powerful, style-forming mastery of the art of narration."  

Tragically, he died by suicide in 1961. 

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."