Have you ever struggled with describing exactly why you like or dislike a book? Maybe you enjoyed the plot, related to the characters, but for some reason you wouldn’t recommend it to others.
I’ve had this problem for a long time. Usually my response would be, “well, the writing isn’t great.” But what did I mean by that? What made the writing mediocre?
Then I read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and suddenly I had the knowledge and tools to notice a beautifully crafted sentence, natural dialogue, and unforgettable details. The main idea is to read slowly and closely—word by word. When we read for plot we can just fly through a book, but Prose advocates reading analytically by paying attention to style, detail, dialogue, diction and how sentences were formed and information conveyed.
Because this book made such an impact on my reading, I am leading a book club called Readers’ Workshop throughout 2017. It’s held the second Thursday of every month (except December) at 7 p.m. at the Curious Iguana bookstore in Frederick, MD.
We are using Reading Like a Writer as a reference guide and we’ll read one chapter a month as well as a work of fiction. We’ve only met once so far, and already I’ve learned a lot from the participants. So I am planning to write blog posts summarizing some of the discoveries we make as a group.
This past Thursday we read the chapter on the importance of words (Chapter 2) and Alice Munro’s short story collection, Moons of Jupiter.
Prose describes Munro’s writing as plain, sparse and Spartan. Although it seems effortless, every word “challenges you to think of a more direct, less fussy way to say what she’s saying.”
The club members agreed with Prose’s characterization and pointed out that despite the fact that she uses such plain language and short sentences, the stories are very complicated and dense and tackle difficult subjects like psychological abuse.
One person pointed out that Munro has a lot of respect for her readers—she trusts that we’ll be able to figure out the meaning and depth in her stories.
Another member said that her writing is almost as sparse and spare as poetry, but that she has a precision that is exact. We may not have loved every story in the collection, but we could all agree that you are rewarded when you slow down and pay attention to Alice Munro’s language.
If you find yourself with a garden space that is horizontally challenged, take a tip from the Spaniards and go vertical. In countless courtyards throughout Cordoba, gardeners are not deterred by limited space. Instead they put plants in containers that climb up the walls toward the sunlight. No need to get fancy with the pots, simple terra cotta will do. Add in some blossoming flowers in coordinating colors, mix up the textures of the foliage, and just keep rising higher and higher. One more thing: consider drought-resistant plants because watering all of these regularly would be bothersome.
Today the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to an American.
Did you know that only about a dozen American writers have won the Nobel in Literature (and a few of those came to the U.S. as adults)? The New Yorker has an interesting piece about why the U.S. has been snubbed.
Some could see today’s award as yet another snub to American literature. Why? Because the prize went to Bob Dylan.
Yes, that Bob Dylan.
Instead of focusing on that, let’s look at some of the American authors who have received that coveted prize. There are some heavy hitters on the list – Hemingway. Steinbeck. Faulkner. Instead I’ll share five books I recommend from Americans who won a Nobel Prize in Literature.
1) Joseph Brodsky – Less Than One
This book is a collection of essays that delve into everything from traveling to poetry to Soviets. I blogged about a snippet from one of the essays here. As someone who finds reading poetry quite difficult, I appreciated the almost lecture-like dissections of poets and poetry in some of the essays.
2) Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon
Morrison is such a gem to American literature. Song of Solomon was the first book I read by her and I was wowed.
3) Czeslaw Milosz – Issa Valley
When I finished this book, I made a note that Milosz was a Polish Mark Twain. The book’s child protagonist lives an idyllic life in a village deep in the forests of Eastern Europe. It’s hard not to imagine Huck Finn.
4) Isaac Bashevis Singer – Meshugah
Meshugah means nuts in Yiddish, and, boy, can this book be nutty. The novel is about Holocaust survivors in New York City in the 50s and the narrator is a Yiddish columnist who gets entangled with a much younger married woman. There’s love. Sin. Entrapment.
5) Saul Bellow – Humboldt’s Gift
Humboldt’s Gift is a bit of a neurotic look at the life of writers (this is perhaps why I enjoyed it).
Immigration has been a hot topic this campaign season and, as the spouse of an immigrant, I get frustrated with the misinformation, distrust and xenophobia that’s been dominating the national conversation.
What is life really like for immigrants? Obviously there isn’t a universal experience, but we can turn to fiction to help us discover some common themes among the different categories of immigrants. Read these four award-winning books to get a glimpse of the lives of a variety of immigrants.
1) The Refugee: The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen
The 2016 Pulitzer prize winner follows the story of a Vietnamese man who is an undercover communist agent during the Vietnam War. A large portion of the story is set in California where the main character lives as a refugee with other Vietnamese who are having to endure the transition of having been esteemed military leaders and are now forced to live unassuming and impoverished lives in the U.S. This is definitely a common theme among refugees and immigrants who end up in America and have to start all over again. This time from the very bottom.
2) The Immigrant Without a Visa: The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
Winner of the Man Booker Prize, this book follows the lives of two Indians, including one who is an immigrant living and working in the U.S. illegally. This novel does an excellent job of debunking the fantasy of many immigrants that they will make tons of money quickly in the U.S. and can either send money home or just move back home. This is hard to do even when you have a visa, but even harder if you’re not legally able to work.
3) The Student Visa: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
Americanah (winner of the National Book Critics Circle award) is a novel about an immigrant from Nigeria
on a student visa, which is a good contrast to the story of the visa-less immigrant. As great of an opportunity as it may be to get a visa to study in the United States, one common problem students have is that they have no way to legally earn money even while in school. Only the most privileged of us are able to get through college without working a part-time (or full-time) job at the same time. When I shared parts of the book with my husband he would say, “that’s too real.” This quote was one of those.
They would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.
4) The Immigrant, Permanent Resident, Naturalized Citizen: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpar Lahiri
The final category is of those immigrants who live and work in the United States legally and may even have become citizens. Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories focuses on the lives of Indian immigrants, but reading the stories I could relate to the challenges and themes as a wife of an Eastern European immigrant. The stories focus a lot on learning to live in a new, vastly different culture than your own, which is something most immigrants will experience.
Trees growing in a straight line? This is not coincidental. This is what happens when trees grow out and on top of dead, fallen trees. A concept called the nurse log. As you hike through the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park everything feels very alive – the greenery all around is teeming with life that supports more life. And if that weren’t enough to inspire, the local library placed signs with poetry along the trail (including the poem below).
Nature is what we know –
Yet have no art to say –
So impotent our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.
It’s hot again. We had this slight tease of 2 days of Fall-like weather earlier in the week, but we’re fully back in August’s armpit this weekend.
Drinking plain water can get boring, so this summer I’ve been experimenting with some infused water recipes. If you’re looking to shake up your drinking water, take one or both of these recipes for a whirl.
Want something summery but more adult? Check out my Pimm’s Cup recipe.
Lavender, Mint & Lemon Infused Water
Place a sliced lemon, a handful of lavender and a handful of mint leaves in a pitcher. If you’d like, smash it all with a muddler. Fill the pitcher with filtered water. Place in refrigerator and let sit overnight. Pour the water through a strainer into another pitcher. Serve with ice. (You can discard the solids, or give it another go with more water and another night in the fridge).
Slightly Sweet Lemon Mint Water
Put half of a sliced lemon and a few tablespoons of mint in a quart-sized measuring cup. Sprinkle a half tablespoon of white granulated sugar on top. Muddle until the sugar is wet (about 30 seconds to a minute). Pour filtered water on top to fill the measuring cup. Whisk well to make sure the sugar dissolves. Pour through a strainer into a pitcher, pushing down on the solids to extract more flavor. Discard solids.You can add lemon slices to the pitcher if you’d like. Serve with ice.
In Kyoto we wanted to visit the bamboo grove Arashiyama. We had seen pictures of rows upon rows of bamboo that looked mesmerizing. We trudged there all the way across town and were, well, underwhelmed. Yes, lots of bamboos. But it didn’t have that dizzying quality we expected. (Plus it was packed with tourists). We had seen more impressive groves elsewhere in Kyoto. On an unassuming detour at Fushimi Inari, we walked by hundreds of bamboos lining the trail. Later at Enko-ji we saw the grove pictured here, which had a major advantage because we were the only people there.