In the next two weeks I'll hunker down with pages of required and recommended reading, prep work for the ten long days of seminars and workshops. The descriptions are enticing and although only seven seminars/lectures/workshops are required, I've highlighted fifteen. I mentioned it to Darby the other day and he just rolled his eyes.
Of course you are going to fifteen, he said with a little smile and shake of his head.
I'm a curious cat and he knows me well. The residency only comes up twice a year, and wouldn't you want to soak up as much as you can?
But, there's also the question of balance. Once again I'm hoping to get an hour of exercise every day I'm on campus. I'll pack my running shoes, some yoga clothes, a towel. There's a lovely cemetery across the street from the school, and last time I intended to explore it. I did glimpse it from a faculty member's window a time or two. I imagined a run through the quiet paths would be wonderful. Somehow it never happened, not even a walk.
More on balance later. Meanwhile, in case anyone out there in the wide world of readers is interested, here's a list of what I read since January. I need to write summaries on some of my recent reads (see below the pic), but it's a good start:
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Men. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print
The second book of Alcott’s classic Little Women trilogy is a fictionalized account of true events from the author’s life. It follows Little Women’s main character Jo March presiding as the mistress over Plumfield, a boarding school for needy boys. This classic YA novel is filled with antics and anecdotes about the children at Plumfield. Though dated and with some clumsy writing, the book is ultimately uplifting as it follows the children through their joys and challenges with nurturing guidance from Jo and her husband.
Ballantine, Poe. “Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel.” The Sun. (June 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 66-75. Print.
Beard, Jo Ann. The Boys of My Youth. New York: Little, Brown, 1999. Print.
This collection of short stories taken from microscopic moments and monumental events in the author’s life, set within her relationships with family, classmates, and friends, are joined in their honesty, detailed descriptions, and masterful crafting. The stories range from early childhood through her marriage and post-marriage years. Throughout the collection, the author holds a tight frame on the story, illustrating exemplary control of plot and characters.
Berger, John. Here Is Where We Meet. New York: Pantheon, 2005. Print.
Here Is Where We Meet is a fictionalized exploration into present relationships with meaningful people from the author’s earlier life who have since passed away. With a delicate intimacy, the author explores ideas of sacredness within personal relationships, profundity in small gestures, and the simple beauty of ordinary interactions.
Carson, Anne. Plainwater: Essays and Poetry. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
This five-part collection of lyrical poetry and poetic prose, draws equally on Carson’s elegant imagination rooted in modern day and her expertise of the Classics and ancient philosophy. In "Part I Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings”, Carson takes fragmented remains of Greek lyric poet Mimnermus and re-envisions them in interpretations with lusty imagery. In “Part II Short Talks”, each piece is a brief musing inspired by art, location, and relationship dynamics. “Part III Canicula Di Anna” (the dog days of Anna) Carson’s poetry/prose philosophical musings shift through narrative points-of-view, camera angles, and reality. “Part IV The Life of Towns” is a collection of poems, each presented as singular ideas, emotions, or images. Of the five sections, “Part V Anthropology of Water” is the most linear, written as a series of stories related by theme and metaphor, and explores the relationships between men and women.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1968. Print.
The title essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, as with many others in the collection, focusses on a featured group of people, closely observing the subjects without the author involving herself. While Didion holds herself separate from the subjects, there is a relationship that she cultivates with the reader. These essays maintain careful balance of narration and exposition. They feature a conversational style with the reader, specificity of place and time, and a use of writing as a tool for personal exploration.
Heat-Moon, William Least. Blue Highways. New York: Little, Brown. 2013. Print.
“I took to the open road,” writes William Least Heat-Moon early in his book Blue Highways, “in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.” He set out alone, in need of quietude and a new path for his life, and also because the “distant side of the beyond seems a lure we can’t resist.” There are two stories running through Blue Highways’ pages: one is the author’s dissolving marriage; the other is on the outside world, and the author’s philosophical inquiry into Self, ego, and change.
Kelley, William Melvin. “Breeds of America.” Harper’s Magazine. (August 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 1-16. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. On The Road. New York: Penguin, 1976. Print.
Through sex, drugs, and jazz, On the Road is based on the true life travels of author Jack Kerouac and friends as they drove and hitchhiked across the U.S. and Mexico in the latter half of the 1940s. Set against the ever-changing scenery of small towns, big cities, and the road, On the Road is a search for belonging and the meaning of life amid a changing American culture. It is the beat generation’s iconic novel about a quest for self-discovery amid a culture of conformity, and a capsule of a particular time of American history.
Kessler, Brad. Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, a Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese. New York: Scribner, 2009. Print
Goat Song follows the author’s first year of raising Nubian goats in rural Vermont as he learns to care for them, examines the relationship between contemporary Western culture and its pastoral roots, and explores the art of making cheese. The writing is both amiable and insightful. The dialog and in-scene descriptions of goat breeding, birthing, and milking are at once lovely and entertaining, and are balanced by an informative essayistic voice that investigates the history and influence of pastoral life on our modern day alphabet, idioms, and biases.
Kirn, Walter. “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon.” The New Republic. (August 2, 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 92-105. Print.
L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Square Fish, 2007. Print.
A YA science fiction/fantasy about 14-year old Meg Murray who travels through time and space with her brothers in order to save their scientist father who is held hostage on an unfriendly planet. The book features strong, intelligent, and complex female characters and deals with multiple dimensions, alien intelligent life, scientific theories, adolescent challenges, single-parent households, and abandonment issues, as well as subtle underlying Christian themes.
Levi, Primo. The Periodic Table. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken, 1984. Print.
In The Periodic Table, Levi intertwines scientific study with universal themes amid the challenges of daily living as a Jew in Nazi Europe. The author universalizes his experiences in the lab and in Nazi-era Europe by drawing human insights out of the elements’ physical and interactive qualities. With keen observation and beautiful sentences, Levi illuminates qualities of everyday objects while illuminating qualities of character.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Melville’s American classic Moby Dick explores themes of fate, free will, and chance and couches them within beautiful and sentimental descriptions of a whaling ship’s epic oceanic voyage in pursuit of Captain Ahab’s obsession / nemesis / muse, the white whale Moby Dick. Amid encyclopedic research, philosophical musings, and social commentary is elegant language, humor, and lightheartedness.
Munro, Alice. “Night.” Dear Life: Stories. (2012). Alfred A. Knopf. Rpt in Granta (Summer 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 17-26. Print.
Ondaatje, Michael. Coming Through Slaughter. New York: Vintage International, 1976. Print.
The short novel Coming Through Slaughter is a speculation of what happened to the mysterious New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden when he disappeared for two years, and then, upon emergence back into society, had a public psychotic breakdown that landed him in a mental hospital from age thirty to his death twenty-four years later. Through fictionalized accounts and shifting points-of-view based on true-life records, relations, and one photograph, the author brings to life a man whose influence on the emerging jazz sounds out of New Orleans during his lifetime were undeniable, but whose life, without record, video, or journalism, might have otherwise slipped through the cracks of time.
Pollack, Eileen. “Pigeons.” Prairie Schooner. (Spring 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 114-122. Print.
Sampsell, Kevin. ““I’m Jumping Off the Bridge.”” Salon.com. (August 3, 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 106-112. Print.
Schmitt, Richard. “Sometimes a Romantic Notion.” The Gettysburg Review. (Autumn 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 27-37. Print.
Inspired by a light conversation with a colleague, Schmitt’s essay is a reflection on the free-spirited cliché of (as his colleague said) “running off to join the circus” versus his own challenges as a young adult in getting a job at a circus. Schmitt parallels his memories of the circus with his current challenges as a fiction writer and the clichés that writing is a “God-given genius” rather an endeavor with its plethora of difficulties. The writer’s description of his current struggles and past challenges has a genial feel, communicating directly to the reader with easy-going conversational questions that fashion a sense of mutuality in the personal struggle of young adults or artists, and the desire to hide the growing pains from the public eye.
Shapiro, Dani. Devotion. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010. Print.
Author Dani Shapiro’s memoir Devotion is about her spiritual quest to understand the intersections between her Orthodox Jewish upbringing and her assimilated, modern, non-religious lifestyle. Through studies in Judaism, Buddhism, and yoga philosophy, along with self-inquiry, Shapiro’s memoir is a process of her examination of personal challenges and her hunt for how to live fearlessly amid the uncertain, temporary nature of life.
Thomas, Abigail. Safekeeping. New York: Anchor, 2000. Print.
Safekeeping is a collection of thoughts and scenes from Thomas’ life, each presented in its own chapter, some mere lines in length, some several pages, none tied together through a joining thread of linearity, but which, as a whole book, tell the tender, bittersweet story of Thomas’ loves – marital, sibling, parent/child – and her struggles to know and, as Anne Lamott says, lean “to rejoice in herself”.
Veselka, Vanessa. “Highway of Lost Girls.” GQ. (November 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 38-55. Print.
Vollmer, Matthew. “Keeper of the Flame.” New England Review, 33/1. (2013). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 56-65. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. To The Lighthouse. San Diego: Harcourt, 1981. Print.
Woolf’s lyrical novel To The Lighthouse explores the internal landscape of its characters amid the setting of a beach house overlooking an expanse of sea. Woolf explores themes of the real versus the imagined life and the role of ego and Self. The authors follows moments of mind-chatter and mood swings from an internal perspective, noting the moments where the characters are critical of each other alongside moments of tenderness. The novel is a dexterous play of perspective, moving from one character to the other, shifting mercurially with the characters’ emotions.
Yoshikawa, Mako. “My Father’s Women.” The Missouri Review. (Spring 2013). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 76-91. Print.