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In the last few days I took a writing retreat to Porches, in the mountains of Virgina, about an hour outside of Charlottesville.  It was a wonderful retreat in which I finished a story and an essay, wrote a rough draft of a new essay, began the radical revision of one story in a way that may transform it into a novella, and also did scraps of other work and brainstorming.  It was a needed break from the work of teaching, which always overwhelms the work of writing.  It also offered a great chance to refill the well through reading.

I always read – I read year round, reading usually between 50 – 70 books a year, but sometimes in this reading routine I hit dry spots, places where I slow down in my consumption of books, or where the books just aren’t that good, or reading the books is just so fragmented by the work of teaching and living that I don’t get to fully live within them.  But from Tuesday to Friday, besides writing, I was able to simply read.  I had no phone service, and never logged onto the modem, and so had no Internet either.  It was just me and my books, and so this is what I read, and how I refilled my well – my well not just for writing, but my well for living (all of these reviews are straight from my Goodreads page, a page that I update far more frequently than this blog:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie*

(I was half way through this book upon my arrival at Porches)

Americanah is the book I’ve read all year, and while it is only March, this record could last the year.  The management of time, moving backward and forward in time, is only equaled in deftness as Adichie’s use of omniscient POV.  It is an exquisitely well written, compelling contemporary novel, giving a gripping perspective of growing up in Nigeria, and the experience of “becoming” black upon moving to the United States.  Wonderful writing and perspectives of race politics, great use of an ekphrastic type form through the use of blog posts, and wonderful attention to details, from Nigeria to Philly, to Baltimore, to Essex, to London, to New Jersey. She created a beautiful, compelling world, and characters and a central story of love, and finding and losing and finding oneself.  I wanted to read it all in one sitting, which was impossible due to its length, but it was one of those sorts of books that you keep beside you in the car, and carry with you everywhere, just in case you have a long traffic light, or a few minute wait to reach the register.  I wanted to be in this book as much as I could.

Red Bird by Mary Oliver

I adore Mary Oliver, and I adore this book. While I may like individual poems in some of her other books better than any one poem in this book (as famous as it is, I still love “Wild Geese” with my whole heart, and I always will http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org…), this is my favorite book of hers. The entire collection reads like a book of prayers, and it is a beautifully centering, human and empathetic book. Here are just a few snippets:

From “Summer Morning”


Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain –
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

…………………………

From “Sometimes”

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

………………………….

And, because I can’t help myself, here is “Mornings at Blackwater” in full:

Mornings at Blackwater

For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.

And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.

What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.

So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.

………………………..

And, because I just can’t help myself, here is “So every day” in full:

So every day
I was surrounded by the beautiful crying forth
of the ideas of God,

one of which was you.

………………………..

Reading Mary Oliver is like reading comforting and challenging words from a mentor, a mentor that speaks directly from her experience, and somehow, in doing so, says exactly what I need to hear. I am so grateful for Mary Oliver and her poetry. She, alongside Alice Munro, are two of my strongest guiding lights.

Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

This non-fiction book is about the power of objects, and mostly about the power of still lifes in capturing the power of objects.  It is a beautifully and thoughtfully written book, both intensely personal in its chronicling of the loss of one long-term partner and the beginning of his new (and still current) long term love, and the place objects, art, furniture and other ornaments played in those relationships, as objects of beauty and triggers and receptacles for memory.  But beyond the personal, it is also a researched book, and a deeply considered book of art history, studying how and why the old Dutch still lifes contain such power.  And all of this writing is done in the sort of gorgeous prose that makes poets such great essayists.  Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of the book:

“A sharp cracking cold day, the air of the Upper East Side full of noisy plumes of smoke from furnaces and steamy laundries, exhaust from the tailpipes of idling taxis, flapping banners, gangs of pigeons.  Here on the museum steps a flock suddenly chooses to take flight, the sound of their ascent like no other except maybe the rush of air a gas stove makes when the oven suddenly ignites, only with the birds that sudden suck of air is followed by a rhythmic hurry of wings that trails away almost immediately as the flock moves into the air.”

For a book on objects, such a setting of scene hardly seems necessary, but it is essential in setting the tone for this book, which is all about the attention we pay to the world, and to the objects that fill it, especially the most ordinary of things, like gangs of pigeons.

As much as anything else, this is a book of philosophy as Doty looks deeply into art, grief and love.  He wrote that, “We think that to find ourselves we need to turn inward, examining the intricacies of origin, the shaping forces of personality.  But the “I” is just as much to be found in the world: looking outward, we experience the one who does the seeing.  Say what you see and you experience yourself through your style of seeing and saying.” (67)

Ultimately, while the book is mostly about still lifes, and painting, and objects, it also serves as an ars poetica as Doty probes what is most essential in any artistic endeavor, especially one that is engaged in creating something aesthetically beautiful.  In this, on the last page of this slim, but resonant book, he wrote that, “What makes a poem a poem, finally, is that it is unparaphrasable.  There is no other way to say exactly this; it exists only in its own body of language, only in these words.  I may try to explain it or represent it in other terms, but then some elements of its life will always be missing.” (70)

This is what Mark Doty achieves with this book – while he set out to write a long-essay on objects and art, he ultimately wrote a poem, and this essay must be read in its entirety, like a poem, savored, like a poem, transcribed in your journal, like a poem.  It is a beautiful whole.

Incarnadine by Mary Szybist

This is a wonderful work of poetry, and is beautifully made into a book by Graywolf Press.  I don’t resonate with this like I do with some books of poetry, but that is because this book isn’t specifically written for me.  Every book has its ideal audience, its ideal reader, and I have friends that very likely will be that for this book.  That said, I am quite impressed and moved by many of the poems of this book, and it is a fine accomplishment and recommended reading, especially for those who are drawn to feminist Christian imagery in their poetry.  And she has some really great individual poems in here, many with an excellent sense of humor, like her third person poem about herself (or, rather, about a Mary who seems to be the poet), called, “Update on Mary,” with many wonderful observations like “Mary secretly thinks she is pretty and therefore deserves to be loved.” and “Mary worries about not having enough words in her head,” and “Some afternoons Mary pretends to read a book, but mostly watches the patterns of sunlight through the curtains,” followed by, “On those afternoons, she’s like a child who has run out of things to think about.”  (10-11)

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

A fun, great romp of short stories.  I don’t love this as much as I love some short story collections, but any kid that loves science fiction would love these, and I’m planning on teaching at least one of these to my Short Story students, many of whom are studying to be teachers, and who I’m sure may want to teach one or two of these stories.  Like all of Bradbury’s fiction, and like so much of science fiction, every story poses a “What if” question, and then sets about answering it.  It is speculative fiction at its finest, and through that speculation of the future, and of space travel and living on other planets, Bradbury returns his gaze on the human race, and our strengths and short-comings.  Stories like “The Other Foot,” about what if African-Americans escaped racist America to live on Mars, and then are faced with how to treat the first White Man to fly to Mars in twenty years.  There are so many wonderful stories in this collection, and I really also loved this editions preface by Bradbury in which he writes about his writing process, and his asking of “What if” questions, and his almost frantic pace in writing.  He describes his process as “the creative process is much like the old-fashioned way of taking photos with a huge camera and you horsing around under a black cloth seeking pictures in the dark.  The subjects might not have stood still.  There might have been too much light.  Or not enough.  One can only fumble, but fumble quickly, hoping for a developed snap.” Because of his pace, and the way he churned out stories, these stories are not perfect.  Sometimes the plot, and the characters, are flat, but still, these are compelling portraits of humanity.

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