Archive for Readings

Brilliant: B.J. Novak Reads “The Book With No Pictures”

In this bunny eat bunny world, we’ve seen celebrity authors come and go. Mostly come, in droves, especially after Harry Potter put a spotlight on the profit potential of the children’s book biz. Ca-ching.

Everybody’s making millions!

For many of us non-celebrity authors and illustrators, dressed in our dreary clothes, clutching our cold coffee cups, it’s hard not to be a little, urm, disgusted at times. The crappy book by the “star” that gets a ridiculous amount of undeserved attention.

IMG_0369But that’s life, so we deal with it, and try to keep our petty thoughts to ourselves.

However, I hasten to add: not all celebrity books suck. Jamie Lee Curtis wrote some good ones, as I recall. Fred Gwynne — Herman Munster! — made a sincere  effort to create singular children’s books. By that I mean, my sense is that they actually worked on the books, actually respected the idea of a children’s book, and got into it for the “right reasons,” however we might differ in defining what those reasons are. It wasn’t just a way to cash in on something.

Anyway, this fresh, new effort by B.J. Novak is brilliant. Yes, absolutely, he came up with a clever idea. A great idea. But then he pulled it off over the course of an entire book. That’s not at all easy. And it’s beautifully published, too. Great job, all around.

Kids today, they sure do love the meta.

Enjoy this book with no pictures, folks. Go ahead, stomp on that link, surrender to the video. It makes me wish that I had a room full of kids to read this one too.

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Reading “Danny the Champion of the World”: And Wonderful It Was

I guess it’s true of most readers. We have these embarrassing gaps in our reading lives, all those books we didn’t get to, the awful holes we hope to one day fill. It’s an impossible task, a job (and a joy) that can never be completed.

To that end, I’m currently reading Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.

I haven’t finished it yet, and I’m disinclined to offer up a review. But I wanted to share a few thoughts, beginning with this incredible illustration by Quentin Blake.

 

Dahl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I keep returning to that page, staring at that picture. Just a few simple lines that capture such depth of feeling. There it all is, being a kid, looking up at a parent with love and wonder while snuggled up warm in bed. Two dots for eyes — two dots! — and yet they seem to express the essence of that relationship. The father registers only as a looming presence without detail, like a great tree in a forest. He is, simply, there. A force of nature and comfort. It’s amazing, I’m stunned by it, in awe of it. So that sums up an important part of today’s blog.

Wow: Quentin Blake.

Then there’s the storytelling of Mr. Dahl, which is a gift I’ll never have. The man tells stories. Whoppers. But here, today, I want to focus on Dahl’s writing style. I admire the clarity and directness. I’m also charmed by the Englishness — the strangeness to my American ears, the weird things they happily eat, the peculiar names of things — where every detail seems just a little other-worldly, even in a fairly straight-ahead, naturalistic novel such as this one. This is the distance of time and place. A different world, yet still familiar.

Here’s the paragraph that went before the illustration above. I keep reading it over and over again. Now I get to type it, feeling like a weekend musician at home with a guitar banging out a Beatles tune, channeling that great artistic beauty through my fingertips (I love typing out great passages from books):

I really loved living in that gypsy caravan. I loved it especially in the evenings when I was tucked up in my bunk and my father was telling stories. The kerosene lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove, and wonderful it was to be lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room. Most wonderful of all was the feeling that when I went to sleep, my father would still be there, very close to me, sitting in his chair by the fire, or lying in the bunk above my own.

That paragraph, to me, is absolutely perfect. The writing is direct, specific, concrete (not abstract), interesting (lumps of wood) and for the most part, quite plain. I really loved living in that gypsy caravan. Few would claim that as an example of great writing — except for the obvious fact that, wow, that’s great writing. The absence of flash. An arrow doing its swift work, slicing to the next sentence.

danncover3The only tricky moment in this paragraph, where the language uplifts and surprises us, giving the reader temporary pause, occurs in that more elaborate third sentence, which was perfectly set-up by the direct predicate-verb structure of the previous two sentences. I really loved, and, I loved. Which leads to this: The kerosene lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove, and wonderful it was to by lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room.

You heard that, right?

And wonderful it was.

Again, all I’ve got is wow. There’s so much there, the essence of being loved, of feeling secure, of being a child safe from harm, snug and warm. Can writing really do that? It feels like a small miracle. Is this why I love books?

And it all happens on page 7.

One Novel with a Perfect Ending

UnknownI finally got around to reading Sherman Alexie’s bestseller, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. There’s just times in your life when you’ve got to rectify old wrongs, and this was one of them. I had to read that book.

I’d heard that it was a great book from many sources, including some trusted friends. (A curious phrase, by the way, “trusted friends.” As opposed to all those other friends we have, with crappy taste, the friends we can’t possibly trust.)

So I took Alexie’s book out of the library and read it. Now I am a member of the club and say without hesitation: Stop wasting your life and read it already! Today I’m not looking to review a book that’s already been reviewed hundreds of times. My focus is on the book’s final two paragraphs. To me, those six sentences felt exactly right, forming a poignant, understated conclusion.

I don’t think that reproducing it here involves any spoilers, or anything that could diminish your enjoyment of the book, so here goes:

Rowdy and I played one-on-one for hours. We played until dark. We played until the streetlights lit up the court. We played until the bats swooped down at our heads. We played until the moon was huge and golden and perfect in the dark sky.

We didn’t keep score.

I love the repetition of “we played,” repeated four times, the rhythmic, accumulative power of that device, the simplicity of the word choice, the interplay between light and dark, and that great, four-word conclusion. We didn’t keep score. Perfection.

Back four years ago, I wrote a decent post titled “Best Last Lines from Books,” and I think you might enjoy it. So click away, folks. It’s absolutely free.

Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom

I am proud of my friend, Lewis Buzbee, who has written this much-acclaimed book — and it just came out this week. He is a great writer and friend and I can’t wait to read this new one. A book for anyone who has gone to school, or cares about education.

A classic back-to-school book.

 

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“Buzbee’s affectionate account [is] a subtle, sharply etched critique of contemporary public education. . . . Deeply affectionate toward teachers, harshly critical of budget cuts, the book offers an eloquent, important reminder (which in a perfect world would inform policy) about the nature of school.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A bracing rejoinder to the didactic, data-driven books from policy gurus and social scientists. . . . From the layout of schools to the distinction between ‘middle school’ and ‘junior high school,’ Buzbee spreads engaging prose across the pages, providing both a reminiscence of better days and a considered examination of the assumptions we all make about what does—and does not—constitute a quality education. . . . A welcome book on the importance of education for all.”—Kirkus Book Vault Reviews

A Children’s Book That Left a Lasting Impression

I was recently contacted by a journalist for a national newspaper who wanted me to name a book I read as a child that left a lasting impression.

That’s a tough question for me, because I sense that my answer is never exactly what the questioner is seeking. I don’t have a poignant story about Charlotte’s Web or Harriet the Spy, that glorious day when I suddenly knew that reading was for me, and forever. I can’t describe in loving detail the book I encountered as a fresh-faced welp. (Though I do recall loving Splish, Splash, and Splush.)

Nonetheless I did somehow grow up to become an author, and therefore my answer is, I guess, legitimate. It’s the only story I’ve got.

Here’s how I replied, limited to 150 words:

Born in 1961, I have no memory of my parents reading to me. That’s not a complaint, by the way. I grew up surrounded by six older siblings and they were (mostly) all readers. I guess I got the message by sheer proximity. As a baseball-mad boy in a world without ESPN, I devoured the sports pages in the daily newspaper. Those were the first writers I desperately needed. By age 13, I encountered Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” It was funny and easy to read. There was no YA back then, my generation naturally graduated to Steinbeck, Bradbury, Brautigan, Vonnegut, Plath, whomever. “Breakfast” blew me away. Here was something as devilish as the kid in the back row, irreverent, rebellious, hilarious, wild. In a word, subversive. In those pages I first recognized the possibility that a book could be supremely cool. Thanks, Kurt.

A Perfect Passage from THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich

No offense to any librarians out there, but I prefer to own books, not borrow them. I realize there’s a financial downside to my predilection, but what can I say? It feels good to support the industry, the book stores, the publishers, the authors themselves. If I can manage it, I don’t mind spending the money on books.

For starters, I like having them around, living in my rooms. Books make great furniture and, in a way, furnaces: they warm homes.

Secondly, I usually read with a pen in my hand. I underline passages, write comments, exclamation points, stars, notes and complaints. It is the dying art of marginalia, a direct reader-response. I can’t do that with library books, and Post-It Notes simply do not satisfy.

I’ve been on nice reading streak lately — have picked out some good ones. I just finished THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir. Fabulously entertaining, and a celebration of science and the intelligence of man. A geek-hero who survives through his attitude, his determination, and his brilliant mind.

Before that, I read THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich. I loved it, every word. What a great writer. Seamless sentences, never a crack showing, and such human insight. A writer with soul. But I’ve got a problem and you can probably guess it: I borrowed the book from my local library and it’s past due.

I’ve been reluctant to return it, to drop it into the slot and hear the dull thunk as it hits the bin. Gone, gone, gone. My book no more.

One first-world problem is that I’ve been rereading, almost daily, the book’s perfect last paragraph. Over and over I return to it, stunned and speechless. That penultimate sentence, especially. What a beautiful evocation of lost innocence, the crossing over into something harder, more brutal and cold, adulthood and loss, “when we all realized we were old.”

I really didn’t want to let the book go, and maybe I’ll buy a copy for myself one day. In the meantime, I’ll type out that last paragraph here, so I’ll have it safely tucked away in the white, high-ceilinged halls of cyberspace. I don’t think there’s any spoilers revealed, it’s not that kind of book. A 13-year-old boy and his parents return home after a long drive.

Quick aside: I don’t play a musical instrument, but I love music. One of the things I’ve always envied about musicians is that they can play all these great songs, have those enduring melodies and fat riffs run through the fingers as they channel greatness.

That’s how I feel typing this passage from Louise Erdrich. Like I’m playing the guitar part from “And Your Bird Can Sing.”

How I wish that I could write as simply, as beautifully.

- – - – -

IN ALL THOSE miles, in all those hours, in all that air rushing by and sky coming at us, blending into the next horizon, then the one after that, in all that time there was nothing to be said. I cannot remember speaking and I cannot remember my mother or my father speaking. I knew that they knew everything. The sentence was to endure. Nobody shed tears and there was no anger. My mother or my father drove, gripping the wheel with neutral concentration. I don’t remember that they even looked at me or I at them after the shock of that first moment when we all realized we were old. I do remember, though, the familiar side of the roadside cafe just before we would cross the reservation line. On every one of my childhood trips that place was always a stop for ice cream, coffee and a newspaper, pie. It was always what my father called the last leg of the journey. But we did not stop this time. We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.

Donalyn Miller’s “The Book Whisperer” Reaches Cultural Icon Status

I met Donalyn Miller at a Literacy Conference in Ohio. She was the keynote speaker and I came away impressed, inspired, and determined to read her book, THE BOOK WHISPERER: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child.

I started reading it yesterday, frustrated over my own 9th-grade son’s brutal, book-hating experience in advanced, 9th-grade English.

I underlined this passage from Donalyn’s book, page 18:

Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters — the saints and sinners, real or imagined — reading shows you how to be a better human being.

The book is filled with passages that make you want to stand up and cheer.

Anyway, this morning Donalyn Miller shared her enthusiasm over this fun bit of pop culture stardom:

Good for Donalyn Miller, good for Jeopardy.

It’s funny, isn’t it? That’s a real touchstone in America today. An undeniable sign that you’ve arrived and made your mark. You become a clue on Jeopardy!

Donalyn is also a founding member of the Nerdy Book Club, which you should definitely follow. Seriously, I insist.

Writing Advice from a Master: “There’s Only One Question and One Answer.”

I have an uncomplicated relationship with the books of Stephen King.

For the longest time, I ignored ‘em.

The problem was two-fold:

1) for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to them in high school, which was too bad, because of what happened next;

2) next, I went to college and got educated.

College can mess you up. I was a Lit major, trying my hardest to be a good student and a sublime writer, and for the most part that meant dealing with IMPORTANT BOOKS and LITERARY WRITERS and DIFFICULT TEXTS. I don’t regret any of that — it’s where I learned to love books, and I enjoyed many great teachers —  but I wish somebody said, “You know, don’t underestimate the value of a good story.”

It sound ridiculous, of course, since “a good story” is only everything.

But it took me a long time to grasp that plain fact. My head was in the clouds; my nose was in the air.

In college, I learned a lot, and later in life I had to unlearn a lot.

So I’ve come to Stephen King late in life. And now that I’m here I am filled with great respect for the man and the writer. I previously wrote about his excellent book on writing, titled — wait for it — On Writing. I’m not an expert on these things, but I found it to be the best, most relatable, no-nonsense book on THE JOB (& CRAFT) of writing as anything I’ve come across before or since.

I’m currently reading 11/22/63, King’s great novel about time travel and a man who seeks to change history by thwarting the Kennedy assassination.

Here’s a few lines from p. 150, which struck me as great advice and, for a writer with my flaws and proclivities, an essential reminder. Maybe it will help you, too?

“In both fiction and nonfiction, there’s only one question and one answer. What happened? the reader asks. This is what happened, the writer responds. This . . . and this . . . and this, too. Keep it simple. It’s the only sure way home.”

I posted this long ago, but thought I’d hurl it into the maw of the internet once more just in case you didn’t catch it the first time around:

Here’s a quick recap of Stephen King’s 12 guidelines:

1. Be talented

2. Be neat

3. Be self-critical

4. Remove every extraneous word

5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft

6. Know the markets

7. Write to entertain

8. Ask yourself frequently, “Am I having fun?”

9. How to evaluate criticism

10. Observe all rules for proper submission

11. An agent? Forget it. For now

12. If it’s bad, kill it

The Poem I Read First Thing Today

Before I rubbed the sand from my eyes, before I drank a cup of coffee, before I got dressed, I read this poem by William Stafford. Then I read it again, out loud, to my wife, before she rose from bed. Then I went downstairs, saw that the day was sunny and crisp, and that a dusting of snow covered the lawn.

I promised myself to be awake to the day.

Isn’t that something?

“the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe –

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

Later I found this reading of the poem by a guy named Dale Biron. Not exactly how I hear it, but a pleasure nonetheless, because it’s always best when the words are heard, familiar units of speech floating on meaningful sound. Have a great day, people. Recognize the fact!

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I suppose I should get to work, stop wasting time, eh? But here’s Stafford himself, 46 seconds long, reading “Scars.” Ah, poetry.

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Sent to me by a friend . . . I wrote this book 19 years ago.

Some days are hard. Some days I don’t feel at all like a success. And other days I just want to give thanks, be grateful, and try not to be such an idiot. Happy Thanksgiving, folks.