Tag Archives: books

Aspiration: Read more, read well

I produce and ingest hearty portions of all of the major Internet food groups daily: tweets, shared items and updates on Facebook, a wide variety of blogs and news aggregators. From any of those starting points, the web can go on and on and on. Sometimes that leads to the sublime or the merely entertaining, but sometimes it gives me the same feeling I invariably get if I dare to visit the snack counter at the movie theater. When there’s too much junk in what I read, I see it in what I write, and how I feel – sort of intellectually bloated and greasy, with way more butter than I was expecting.

One of the easiest tasks I’ve assigned myself on the quest for imperfection in 2009 is to walk away from the chutes and ladders of the web and over to a chair and ottoman that I’ve cleared off for myself, where I can read actual books with pages and ink beneath the glow of a warmly shaded lamp. And especially books that aren’t carved into multiple essays, which have been the ones I’ve had the most hope of finishing in the last year or two. I can be enormously popular in my house, thereby often unable to complete my own sentences, let alone read anyone else’s.

So I’m trying to find things that are nourishing – not necessarily new or topical or even about things that I’m interested in. What I want to read is good writing that glides and bounces and pivots and moves. If the most lyrical book that I can find is about slime mold, then I will read about slime mold.

I’ve started with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which is open and friendly and airy, and has been a nice transition from erratic essay reading, since she’s written it as though it was a string of prayer beads from a Meditation Mala. And it’s about a woman in her 30s on a quest for self-discovery, therefore not really remote to me (like slime mold) at all.

But I have a stack of three books that have been nagging me to read them for years – books that I couldn’t bring myself to look at as a pregnant woman or a new mom. I already felt vulnerable in a way that made me cry at insurance commercials and unable to read too far beyond headlines for a long time after the 2004 election. I didn’t want cynicism or anger or fear in the placenta or the breast milk, so I went cold turkey on my news junkie ways. I turned away from violent movies and shows and stories. Sad ones too.

Besides, I worked as an observer in a couple of the district’s poorest urban high schools during these years. My child was nearly lead poisoned. My very kind and loving dog went through miserable pain with bone cancer before we had to make the awful decision to let him go. My husband lost his business of 20 years to little more than greed. There has been plenty of death and illness in our family, and a few deaths among friends, particularly those who couldn’t beat the demons of substance abuse. So… reading tales of loss and tragedy hasn’t seemed like it would be particularly appealing or cathartic or helpful, no matter how compelling the narrative.

But now my boy is a preschooler and we know how much of nothing and everything that we are in the face of the universe. And we have a new president coming in who wants to steer us away from oblivion instead of into it headlong. And so I can be brave again in the face of literature, particularly the non-fiction variety that I tend to prefer.

I can read By Her Own Hand by Signe Hammer – the memoir of a woman whose mother inexplicably killed herself. I read an excerpt of the book a few years back and the imagery and rhythm of the prose startled me – not in its pain, but its buoyant childhood images. And I can read Newjack by Ted Conover, who worked undercover as a prison guard at Sing Sing for a year, and whose New Yorker essay “Trucking through the AIDS belt” has been haunting me for years, because of one person he drew vividly in that story, and the choppy rhythm of those African roads.

And then, most frighteningly, I may read The Disappearance: A Primer of Loss, by Genevieve Jurgensen, who had two daughters that were killed instantly in a car accident in 1980. I heard her read an excerpt from the book on public radio (maybe on This American Life?) soon after becoming a mother myself and I nearly threw up, so I think I need to read it.

I’m also piecing through Mark Bittman’s Food Matters because I read that it was the most practical book about environmentally conscious food buying and preparation out there. And I plan to read a few of the stories in the traditional Blue Fairy Book to remind myself what fairy tales were to me as a girl, because they didn’t always have happy endings or clear-cut heroes and villains. I may reread A Wrinkle in Time because it’s been 25-30 years since the last time and I don’t remember it so well. And chances are good that I’ll use one of my next coupons on one of James Morrow’s book, because I love me some complicated religious science fiction/humor.

And so, if, by any chance, you’ve made it all the way through this long-winded post, tell me: What book(s) have you read, whether it was last week or twenty years ago, that had a profound influence on your sense of language? If you had to pick a couple of the books that most made you want to write (or to read more), what would they be? Have you ever met a book with a subject that you thought would bore you, but instead, it ended up making you turn off your phone so that you could read it in peace?

Space books that we love (for children… mostly)

One of the nice things about having a child fixated on space is that it’s an easy obsession to feed. The discount shelves of most bookstore chains are loaded with gorgeous picture books full of astronomical phenomena, courtesy of Hubble and other high-powered telescopes.

A few fellow parents hoping to foster or develop their child’s interest in space have asked me for book recommendations. We’ve checked dozens out of the library and received several as gifts, but there are only a handful that I would heartily recommend.

Rhyming & scientifically accurate books
There are still certain facts and concepts that I remember vividly simply because I learned a rhyme or poem or song about them when I was a child. I think these are handy and fun introductory books for kids, but I learned quite a few things from them too:

Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings
“The Universe is every place,
including all the e m p t y space…”

I love the images in this book, as well as the rhymes that describe some characteristics of each planet, black holes, galaxies and more. You can crack the book open to one page and get your fill of Saturn and a few of its moons, or read the whole thing in one setting.

Planets: A Solar System Stickerbook
“First comes Mercury, catching sun’s rays/It has hot, hot nights and cold, cold days.”

A quick read with graduated pages that take you, in quick two-line rhymes, from the sun out to Pluto. This book and Goodnight, Moon were the first two books that my son memorized. He hasn’t forgotten that Mercury is both burning and fridgid, or that Uranus is lopsided.

There’s No Place Like Space: All About Our Solar System
“On Venus the weather is always the same/Hot dry and windy with no chance of rain.”

I don’t find the Seuss Learning Library books nearly as charming as any of the things written by their namesake. Still, this is a decent volume, written in highly Seuss-ian rhyme.

Fantasy/adventure space books
There is plenty of allure in the danger and mystery of the exotic locales that space has to offer, but I think that the latitude to imagine the completely off-the-wall is important too. Just look at your flip phone and consider how much Star Trek has influenced real science. I expect (and hope) that this list will grow substantially over time.

Space Boy
This is the story of Nicholas, who climbs into a his backyard rocket ship and takes a trip to the moon to get away from all of the noise in his house (because there is no noise in space). It’s a sweet and simple story, with bonus zero-gravity tomato slices.

Moongirl: The Collector’s Edition Book and DVD Gift Set
If you like collecting fireflies, and think that it makes perfect sense that children, romance and amusement park rides, not some man or dairy product, are responsible for the moon’s glow, then I can’t recommend this enough. The book, and the brief animated version of the story on the DVD (it’s under five minutes long), are both quality.

Books we want
There are a couple of new
titles that I’m really looking forward to reading, but that we might enjoy more once my boy is able to sit still a bit longer.

Icarus at the Edge of Time
We really love Brian Greene around here. For several months, his NOVA – The Elegant Universe was our Sesame Street. So I’m thrilled that he’s decided to recast the myth of Icarus as as a trip to a black hole in this giant board book. Just remember: when you’ve crossed the event horizon, there is no going back!

George’s Secret Key to the Universe
We haven’t graduated to chapter books yet, but when we do, this one, penned by scientist Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy, will be at the top of my list. Apparently, the bones of the story are deeper concepts of physics and time, wrapped in an adventure’s skin.

For more technical scientific information, including great photos, illustrations and conceptual explanations, I can’t recommend the various DK Books about Astronomy and the Universe enough, but they’re a pretty dry read on their own. Periodically, you can find one that has suggestions for cool, hands-on experiments, like reproducing the stormy clouds of Jupiter with food coloring and milk.

Happy space reading! If you have a book that you and/or your kids love about space, please tell me about it in the comments.

Good time to be a boy

I barely blinked before buying The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn & Hal Igguiden when it popped up on my recommended list at Amazon earlier this year. I hid it in a shirt drawer for at least two weeks, alongside a copy of Where’s My Jetpack? by Daniel H. Wilson. Then I proudly unveiled the tome, packed with boyhood rites, obsessions and tales, to my husband on Fathers’ Day. (It’s retro, red cloth-bound cover and 19th-century gilded font were brilliant marketing devices.)

According to last week’s Time Magazine, plenty of people joined me in buying that book, which remains a best-seller. David Von Drehle’s cover article “The Myth About Boys” makes the argument that this rekindling of the traditionally magical parts of boyhood – from tying slip knots to knowing the story of the Alamo – means that now is a very good time to be a boy. Apparently, there are (pretty pricey) summer camps devoted to creating outdoor spaces that are essentially safe, but allow lots of room for boys to play, explore and feel some sense of danger. And that’s actual danger, not Nintendo danger.

It seems as though Drehle first dismisses some of the ideas in books like Raising Cain and Real Boys – books that profoundly question, if not indict, the ways our culture raises boys – as alarmist. But he later comes to embrace some part of those notions too, because the cultural dialogue about boyhood and masculinity ultimately benefits boys. This is a conclusion that I can agree with – I am glad to have so many ideas and opinions out there to consider.

I still resist it when anyone tries to define Declan’s actions or personality as somehow definitively or traditionally “boyish.”

I’ve seen toddlers of both genders push boundaries, dig in the dirt and splash through mud puddles. Maybe it’s because we’ve been lucky enough to keep him at home (away from the competition of daycare) for these first two years – not to mention the fact that he’s an only child – but so far, his nature seems very gentle. He fearlessly approaches kids of all ages out in public, especially girls, looking them in the face and saying things like “you have blue eyes.” (Eye color has been his favorite thing to observe about people lately.) But he also cracks up and slaps his knees when he sees older boys doing playground slapstick. He obsesses about outer space and loves to throw a ball, but he’s also an awesome dancer, puzzle-doer and snuggler who often declares himself “scared of bugs” and is thrilled if he gets to teach a grown-up something new.

I worry about the expectations future teachers, friends, family and acquaintances might give him about being male, particularly if they happen to quash any part of his ravenous curiosity or chastise his sensitivity by dismissing it as feminine. Sheltering him from people and experiences wouldn’t be particularly helpful, but I hope I can help him develop the strength to face all of it with the kind of assured innocence he possesses today.

Life soundtrack: The Shirelles, The Scepter Records Story, Vol 1, “Boys”
The Shirelles - The Scepter Records Story, Vol. 1 - Boys