Literary life advice

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

3 words: philosophical, quotable, introspective

 

Well, I did kind of a dumb thing when reading this book. I tore right through it.

And while this is a sign that I’m loving a book, it’s also a sign that I’m going to be left with a wispy but happy recall of a reading experience. And that’s definitely the case with this one.

My faint recall (already) is this:

Letters to a Young Poet is a lyrical, thoughtful, and encouraging treatise on the creative life.

And while I’m not living The Creative Life, I love reading about people who do. And this book gives insight into the parts that are horrible and wondrous. And it especially addresses the loneliness that can result from that life.

I found it most consoling.

And I kept marking passages I adored.

Like this…

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.” (p. 34)

For a person who’s always leaning toward the future, this is some tough and wise advice.

 

And for a person in the midst of a house search when reading this book, this line struck me: “…this circumstance, along with other practical difficulties in finding a place to live, helped make the restlessness around us seem as if it would never end, and the unfamiliarity lay upon us with the weight of homelessness.” (p. 46)

Overly dramatic for my situation? Definitely. But that helped nonetheless.

 

And this wisdom, which I find more true the more I live:

“If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outerworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadness with greater trust than we have in our joys.” (pp. 82-83)

And then he goes on to explain how sadness transforms us, and it’s one of the loveliest and most moving things I’ve ever read.

And I’m pretty sure I’m going to go along my merry way and forget it.

 

So: this blog post is my reminder to not do that. Future Self, re-read those pages. Heck, re-read the whole book — it’s only 109 pages, and I promise you, dear darling Future Me, that you’ll be glad of it.

I read the Stephen Mitchell translation, because word on the street is that it’s the one. I was well pleased.

Give this book a whirl if you like… pondering creativity and solitude, lovely writing, life advice

 

Readers… what’s the book you want to remind yourself to re-read?

Nonfiction Shelfies: Aviation, Presidents, Adventure

The home library tour rages on!

Last week we toured my fiction shelves.

Today’s bookshelf tour brings us to the right side of the Glamour Wall…


…which houses Nonfiction!

Actually, it houses a few specific categories of nonfiction, because my nonfiction collection is by far the largest component of my home library — and that means it’s spread throughout the house.  [small shiver of joy]

The living room holds some of my perennial favorite categories of nonfiction: aviation, presidential history, and true adventure.

 

On the top shelf: Aviation (because it seemed suitable to place it nearest the sky)

 

Aviation Favorites

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins

Rocket Men by Robert Kurson

The only thing missing is my pilot logbook (that’s in next week’s installment).

 

Then we segue into Presidential History. (Here I fudge a little and include general political history, too.) This area is heavy on biography and autobiography.

 

Presidential History Favorites

No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin

The Death of a President by William Manchester

All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

 

 

And that brings us to True Adventure. I actually placed these books in the living room simply because I want them near to me. I just like looking at them and knowing such books exist in the world. And while I don’t think I ever conceptualized this section as True Adventure in so many words, the term more or less fits.

 

True Adventure Favorites

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

 

All of the favorites I’ve listed are books I’d be completely delighted to re-read. (Some of them I’ve already re-read more than twice.) In this world, which never spares enough reading time, it’s significant to feel compelled to do the re-read. And this area of the shelves is full of them.

 

My fellow readers… What books do you feel most compelled to re-read?

The Woman’s Hour: I vote yes

The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine F. Weiss

3 words: stirring, detailed, political

Anyone else look at the pictures in nonfiction books before starting to read? (I always, always do.)

I knew I’d love this book when I got completely verklempt looking at the photos while standing in line at the Apple Store. The heroism and the teamwork and the long, long wait for success… it got to me. And this was before I’d read a word of the book. And then the feeling got stronger.

Looking at the final battle in the fight to win the vote for women, it’s astonishing to consider how long these women had been doing this work. I mean, they were already in the second generation!

The opening to this book is downright riveting: women from across the country are boarding trains to converge on Nashville, and they know they’re heading into a serious political battle. It made me goose-bumpy.

When we were in Nashville last year, we saw some of the important suffrage sites: the state capitol and the hotel where the key players stayed and lobbied. It’s pretty amazing to be in the room where it happened.

 

This is one of the rooms!

 

And we visited the recent statue to honor the strong women who helped give half of us Americans the right to vote. (I dearly love to vote.)

 

 

What surprised me about the story: learning just how difficult it was for women to win the right to vote, and learning how racism was a key factor in granting women the right to vote. There was a contingent that opposed enfranchising women because it would meant women of all races could vote. It’s appalling. And it makes it all the more significant that women were granted suffrage, because it was a win in more than one way.

If you enjoy reading about political movements and learning the behind-the-scenes maneuvers, this book is for you. And especially if you like books where the good gals win… pick this one up.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like…women’s history, the complexity of social movements, strong women, history writing that puts you in the moment, heroic women

 

What book got you all stirred up about politics?

Essays on the reading life

The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

3 words: literary, conversational, amiable

 

I didn’t think I was in the mood for bookish essays, but the good Citizen Reader announced an Essay Project, beginning with Nick Hornby, and I can’t resist a reading-related Project.

Then I got a few pages in and started praising Hornby and Citizen for the delightful reading experience. Turns out I was in the mood for bookish essays (at least Hornby-style bookish essays) after all.

It’s weird: I wasn’t particularly interested in the books Hornby writes about, but his comments on the reading life were quite perfect.

I kept marking lines that made me smile, and before I returned the book to the library, I captured my three favorites. Here they are:

  • “A couple of months ago, I became depressed by the realization that I’d forgotten pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I have, however, bounced back: I am now cheered by the realization that if I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever read then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time.” (p. 43)

 

  • “Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else.” (p. 58)

 

  • “Being a reader is sort of like being president, except reading involves involves fewer state dinners, usually. You have this agenda you want to get through, but you get distracted by life events, e.g., books arriving in the mail/World War III, and you are temporarily deflected from your chosen path.” (p. 63)

(that last one!!!!)

 

My fellow readers, he’s one of us. (Except he also writes the kinds of novels that lots of people love, but never mind that)  He’s our readerly kin.

Thanks, Citizen, for the reading suggestion. This stuff’s worth quoting.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… literary essays, a self-deprecating tone, reading about books and the reading life, a touch of humor

 

Anyone else a fan of Hornby?

Educated in pain

 

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

3 words: unsentimental, graphic, dramatic

 

I’m a queasy reader. Anytime there’s cruelty in a book (I struggled with the first parts of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Jane Eyre), I tend to bail out.

And Tara Westover’s memoir almost had that effect on me. I was appalled by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her family. And I mean, appalled.

Her father repeatedly put her in terribly dangerous situations, her brother flat-out abused her physically and emotionally, and her mother stood by and let it happen.

The thing that kept me reading was the knowledge that she’d make it out. Otherwise, I would’ve stepped away. It was just that painful.

Her family claimed to be hardcore Mormons, but there was no godly love happening here.

And while Westover, having escaped via education and strengthened via therapy, appears to have forgiven them, I’m still ticked on her behalf.

But she truly used her talents and worked ridiculously hard to succeed academically. After never having attended school, she started university coursework and eventually earned a doctorate from Cambridge. Darn impressive.

So this book was an emotional roller coaster. Westover takes us with her through her journey, and it’s not an easy one.

I suffered while reading it, but I’m glad I did (even though it’s haunted my dreams).

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of unconventional and violent childhoods, stories of overcoming the odds, memoirs of breaking free from an abusive family, stories of  the importance of education

Romantic memoir

Photo by Michael Nunes on Unsplash

Fifty Acres and a Poodle: A Story of Love, Livestock, and Finding Myself on a Farm by Jeanne Marie Laskas

3 words: humorous, personal, romantic

 

Don’t you love it when you find a book that keeps you reading past your bedtime? For me, this book was one of those.

The words that come to mind: delightful, engaging, romantic, funny, heartfelt, self-discovery, real.

It’s a classic romance, with a farm and a huge poodle. And it’s all true.

It’s also one of those stories I love reading about, but wouldn’t want to experience. I’ve never lived on a farm, and I never want to. Farms are a lot of work, and not the fun kind. The thought of being in charge of that much property—and the thought of needing a tractor… No, thank you. But I adored reading about it.

And there are parts of the story that are completely lovely and that I identified with in the nicest way. There’s a perfectly real and wonderful mid-life love story here, and there’s the story of finding one’s ideal home.

I knew Laskas from her fabulous book Hidden America, which Citizen Reader recommended. She’s a fun writer to read.

For example: “Probably I should pause here and explain the history of this poodle. Because it is important to note that Alex did not have this poodle when I fell in love with him. I did not know that Alex was a poodle person when I fell in love with him. Repeat: did not know. Alex dropped the poodle bomb about a year into the relationship.” (p. 25)

I was reminded of:

    • Amy Dickinson’s Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things because of the love story, the blend of humor and loss, and the sprightly writing.
    • Judy Corbett’s Castles in the Air because it, too, is a memoir about a couple moving into a bit of a wreck and turning it into the home of their dreams

All in all, a perfect delight of a memoir.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of city dwellers moving to the country, mid-life love stories, a light touch of humor, and compulsively readable writing

 

 

Great book discussion book: West with the Night

West with the Night by Beryl Markham

3 words: lyrical, understated, adventurous

You know that thing when you re-read a book and it’s even better than you’d remembered? That happened with West with the Night.

I kept thinking: my high school self was reading some intensely good writing.

The writing, people. The writing.

Markham (or whoever wrote it — there’s a juicy authorship controversy) had some serious talent as an author. There are sentences like this:

“I never knew what their digging got them, if it got them anything, because, when I set my small biplane down on the narrow runway they had hacked out of the bush, it was night and there were fires of oil-soaked rags burning in bent chunks of tin to guide my landing.” (p. 4)

I mean, that’s some gorgeous writing, and that’s some serious romance.

And this paragraph that I remembered from my reading of the book in my teens*:

“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep—leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.” (p. 131)

Lovely, right?

Not only is the writing lush, but the storytelling is incredible and nuanced and delightfully incomplete. (Memoir, you’re a book discussion’s best friend.)

Markham is attacked by a lion and nearly attacked by an elephant, she trains derby-winning horses from her teen years on, and she flew an open cockpit biplane in Africa. And she had multiple affairs (not alluded to in this book, but legendary).

It was not a typical life.

There’s just something enticing about stories of growing up in Africa. This book evoked Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

Except Markham’s book contained some allusions to race that made me frankly uncomfortable. We can see these comments as typical of the time the book was written (1942), but that doesn’t mean a modern reader won’t squirm a bit. And that’s yet another topic of discussion: how do the treatments of race and colonialism affect our reading of the book?

Well worth reading—for the writing, the stories, the discussibility.

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of a woman leading an unconventional life, the Golden Age of aviation, ex-pats in Africa in the early 20th century, reading about free spirits, sympathetic narratives about animals, tales of daring

What’s the book you re-read and found it better than you remembered?

*I might’ve even copied it into my Quotes notebook (such a dork)

Launch of Rocket Men

The Rocket Men book launch…

3 words: thrilled, awestruck, verklempt

A book launch that was a transcendent experience — these things don’t happen just every day. Robert Kurson released his latest book, Rocket Men, in the best of all possible ways: with the full crew of Apollo 8 participating in a panel discussion.

And we were there.

In the same room with Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders.

Of course I was beside myself with joy. The thing that was a revelation was the degree to which the Dear Man and my friend were exhilarated to be in the presence of those men.

It was truly an honor to be in the room with them. And such a delight to hear them interact with each other — there was jocular fondness, there was humor. They’re seriously likeable guys.

One of my favorite moments: Anders was describing the violence of takeoff, and he said they were shaking so hard, Borman took his hand off the abort handle, so he wouldn’t pull it by accident due to the way they were being thrashed around. “Just like any other fighter pilot, he’d rather be dead than screw up.”

Apollo 8 command module, Museum of Science & Industry

I love that.

I had the good fortune to read an advance copy of Rocket Men, which I adored

for all kinds of reasons. And the people brought to life in its pages were clearly recognizable in that room. Kurson really captures their essence.

So, the event is over. But the story lives on in the pages of Rocket Men, a book I truly love.

This one’s going down in my personal history as the best book event ever.

My fellow readers… Book launches can be amazing. Tell us about the best book event you’ve ever attended. What made it fantastic?

Born to Run

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

3 words: lyrical, creative, personal

 

One of my clearest childhood shopping memories goes like this: My mom and I were at Target, and I made a very compelling argument for why she really should buy me the album Born in the U.S.A. And as we continued our Target shopping, I pushed the cart with the album facing me, and I felt so cool.

(Let’s be clear about this: I was in 7th grade and was the polar opposite of cool. I’d offer photographic evidence, except I’ve caused most of it to be either destroyed or hidden in a very safe spot. That crap’s classified.)

Anyway… point is: The Boss, even by association: COOL.

And we know the man can write. At least, we know he can write lyrics. Happily for us readers, he can also write some seriously solid prose.

I found his narrative voice real and compelling and lyrical. His writing is raw and it’s also beautiful. I love that combination.

What made it even better is that I listened to the audiobook, which he reads himself. He’s a little bit deadpan sometimes, but it’s real. And there were some inflections that made me laugh.

I really liked hearing him tell his own story.

What surprised me: I didn’t know he’d been basically homeless for a while (crashing on friends’ couches or living in a surfboard factory) when he was a young musician.

I didn’t know the musical influences that inspired the song “Born to Run,” but once he described them, I couldn’t believe I’d never caught on before.  I’d never listened to “Born in the U.S.A.” and listened specifically to the drums.

And while we’re talking drums, let’s also get back to what I said about writing style. This passage about Max Weinberg full-on blissed me out:

“There are twenty thousand people, all about to take a breath; we’re moving in for the kill, the band, all steel wheels on iron track, and that snare shot, the one I’m just thinking about but haven’t told or signaled anyone outside of this on-fire little corner of my mind about, the one I want right… and there it is!”  (p. 239)

He writes reverently about the people in his band, and even more reverently about his wife. And he’s fairly self-deprecating.

So reading this book means you get to hang out with one of the biggest names in rock and roll, and he seems like a pretty decent guy who can really spin a tale and make it worth hearing.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… celebrity memoirs, solid writing, the back story

 

My fellow readers… Any great celebrity memoirs to recommend?

Reading Reading People and then reading people

Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything by Anne Bogel

3 words: conversational, personal, thoughtful

 

I knew right away that I’d love this book, because I really like Anne Bogel’s narrative voice. She writes the Modern Mrs Darcy blog, which is a very pleasant place to hang out. And she hosts the What Should I Read Next podcast, which is one of my favorite things ever.

Plus: this book’s about personality frameworks, and I dearly love those things.

So what we have here is the set-up for an optimal reading experience. Just put a big mug of coffee in one hand, some decadent chocolate in the other, and this book in my lap —  and plunk me in front of my fireplace with my favorite snuggly throw, and we’re talking serious bliss.

I’ve been a personality fanatic for a while now, and I’ve read about Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinder, and the Love Languages. This book covers those frameworks, but also lots of others… so that was super exciting.

If you’re not already into this stuff, this book is a welcoming doorway into the realm of personality frameworks. It serves as an enticing sampler of lots of different methods, each accompanied by personal stories and examples that make the book very warm and friendly.

If you’re already a personality framework devotee, this book will also make you happy, because the way it explores the various frameworks from a personal perspective provides some really surprising insights.

For example (and this is embarrassing, but we’re all friends here, so here I go…) the way Anne writes about Strengthsfinder made me realize:

Oh my gosh. Other people don’t have the same strengths I have, and I’ve always assumed everyone has them just by nature. And because I’m a Type 1 on the Enneagram, sometimes I’ve done some judging about that.

(Fortunately, I’m also an introvert and was raised to be extremely polite, so those thoughts I’ve kept to myself.)

Of course, I’ve also always judged myself lacking in strengths and tendencies that come easily to others, and I’ve wondered what was wrong with me.

And while there’s plenty wrong with me, some of those characteristics were simply strengths others possess in droves, which I simply ain’t got.

The lovely thing about this book is that Anne describes her own process of self-discovery with her personality, and she’s candid and kind about the situations that can arise before we understand what’s really going on.

For example, she writes about the way she and one of her children are set differently with regard to planning; she is casual and easy about allowing a day to develop organically, and her child feels more comfortable knowing the plan well in advance. (I totally get this.) By merely understanding where each person is coming from, problems: averted. Pretty amazing and powerful stuff. And the way she writes about these things is gentle and respectful of everyone in the scenario, and I really like that.

So reading this book felt like hanging out with a trusted, thoughtful friend who’s willing to serve as your guide to self-discovery and also willing to share her own missteps and ah-ha! moments… cuz none of us is in this alone.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… personality frameworks, self-improvement blended with memoir, figuring yourself out, a friendly voice

 

Readers… what book most expanded your understanding of yourself? Fiction, nonfiction, it all counts…