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.

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