Sunday, February 27, 2011

Runes & Tunes: Hughes & Hill

Everything is Everything

 Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
                    - Langston Hughes

What relationships do you see or feel between these two stellar pieces? 
For one thing:  Their creators have the same initials.  Coincidence?  I think not.  

The Poet: Langston Hughes. Jazz poet of the Harlem Renaissance and one of the most famous African American writers ever, so I'm sure you know his work, esp. "Harlem" ("What happens to a dream deferred?") and "Theme for English B"; "I, Too, Sing America" and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers".  "Mother to Son"s a tad unusual - he doesn't always write in dialect, to my knowledge - but its poignancy's enriched and the mother's character refined by this language-register tactic, in my view.  It's hard to go wrong with his work, so start at this link and just keep following wherever the trail leads you...

The Musician: Lauryn Hill.  Again, she's quite well known as a contemporary musician, with her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, winning five Grammy's, including Best New Artist and Album of the Year.  "Everything Is Everything" is the third single released off that album.  Hill's early career with the Fugees morphed into solo stardom at the turn of the 21st century, and today she's a working mom of five kids - a producer, actress, and humanitarian too.  And guess what?  Her mom was an English teacher!

Please support the poets and musicians who change us with their art.


p.s. And - although I put this pairing together weeks ago - somehow I feel these pieces speak to our ongoing conversation...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Georgia Bottoms: Sweet Tart

Click the cover to "look inside" for a sense of
Childress's breezy, confident prose.
Remember those little candies you couldn't get enough of as a kid, so addictive in their interplay between the first light, smooth sugariness and the sharp intensity underneath?

Well, that's her.  That's Georgia Bottoms, the prostitute with a heart of gold, a mind for business and subterfuge, and a million and one skeletons in her Alabama closet.  If you're a fan of the wild - and often laugh-inspiring - romp, then Mark Childress's latest comic novel (his early Crazy in Alabama might ring a bell) may just offer up the tangy zing you're looking for.

While too much plot might spoil the pudding here, suffice to say that Georgia - charmingly imperfect and stunningly gorgeous and canny as all get out - is up to her pretty little armpits in well-meaning schemes to keep her happy, single life humming along in her tiny Southern hometown.  And she just about gets away with it.  Just about.

But if she did, what would be the fun in that?

Instead, as perhaps you'd expect from a comic novel, Georgia's discombobulations - and her quick-witted recoveries - are our big fat grin-fest. 

Perhaps you're ready for a summery diversion from these cold, gray winter days.  If so, set your disbelief and your judgments aside on that hand-tatted doily atop Georgia's seven-drawered chiffarobe and let the fun begin...

My Action?
Hypocrisy.  No, I'm not going to cultivate it; I'm going to take a good hard look in the mirror, knowing that we all engage in it from time to time, and often do so blissfully unaware of our own folly.

Why?  I've just finished a string of books in which many characters are utter hypocrites.  In this novel, self-contradiction abounds as a source of comic confusion, infusing most of Childress's fictional world and including our lovely Georgia.  And in another recent read, The Tortilla Curtain, T.C. Boyle is clearly creating satire while striving to unveil a protagonist's hypocrisy in a humorous but critical light. 
And I won't begin to tell you about the recent doings of the 'characters' in my own little day to day world...

My conclusion: Hypocrisy is everywhere.  And it ain't ever pretty.  (Although it can be pretty funny to read about...)  And as is true of the characters in Georgia Bottoms, I'm in need of a serious hypocrisy shake-down.  How do I know?   Because I don't think of myself as in possession of one single shred of hypocrisy: That's how I know I'm suspect.

What'll I do?  I'll reflect in writing for a few days in a row.  The goal: To uncover at least a few of my own hypocrisies and set myself on the road to fixing them. 

Just the Gist
Title: Georgia Bottoms
Author: Mark Childress
Genre(s): Comic, Contemporary Fiction
Published: February 23, 2011 (today!)
Pages: 278
Book's Website:
Overall rating: ***
Get it at...

MFB in Alabama,

FYI for Crazy in Alabama readers: This one's not nearly as violent as his earlier work, and - in my view - Fanny Flagg's comparison of Childress to Flannery O'Connor is utterly unwarranted here.  There's little of the 'grand dame of the Southern Gothic' in evidence, as Georgia Bottoms is an open-hearted, free-wheeling and broadly episodic yarn whereas O'Connor's stories tend toward tight snowballing-toward-catastrophe plotlines with a heaping of black humor on the side.

And in the "Coincidence? I think not." category:  This is the second book this month featuring Gee's Bend, Alabama's famous quilts.  Irene Latham's lovely children's novel ('middle reader' really) Leaving Gee's Bend (my review linked here) features a dirt-poor fictional quilter as its young protagonist, while in this adult novel, the protagonist sells Gee's Bend quilts to help support her utterly mad Little Mama and her far-away son.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Story of Stuff: Read It and Change

To sample, click the book cover...
That's the bottom line.  If you invest your time and strict attention in this content-rich but conversationally written tome, you can't help but act in ways kinder to people, to the planet, and to your stuff as well.  Not a bad investment of your reading time, eh?

AND, Ms. Leonard aced out Citizen You to grab the coveted Golden Sticky Award for the most "news you can use"-packed book of the 2011 thus far. The winning #? 48 stickies!

Why you'd want to read it:
* You watched the short online video "The Story of Stuff", got hooked, got curious, or got skeptical:  You want more background info. so you can feel convinced enough to shift your views a bit or to take action at home or in your community.

* You'd like to create a study group in your neighborhood, town, or family to start increasing your well-being while adjusting your "stuff", and you're looking for a book to get conversations and action started.

* You're pretty skeptical about claims that our consumption - particularly in the U.S. - has any appreciable impact on our world or our children's future.  You're open to a compelling argument with plenty of footnotes to up credibility, and you're OK with the fact that Leonard's shaping her case by carefully by choosing not only what she puts in, but also what she leaves out and how she spins each and every piece of information.

* You're entirely convinced that our consumption - particularly in the U.S. - has an appreciable impact on our world and our children's future.

* You didn't know that corporations (at least in the U.S.) have all of the rights but few of the responsibilities of human beings, and that their chief legal responsibility is to make money for their shareholders (all other considerations take a back seat).  You'd like to know much more about how those facts affect your own personal health and happiness.  (FYI: Another place to start your exploration of corporations is the free online video The Corporation...)

* You're a professor or teacher who's creating an introductory unit or course on sustainability and the triple bottom line (well-being for humans & communities, positive impact on the environment, and economic well-being for the business enterprise) and want a readable yet information-rich foundation text.

* You write a book blog focused on taking positive action with each tome under your dome, and you're looking for a good read that's also action-rich.  :-)  And to that point...

My actions
1. Get rid of aluminum and PVC in my home - all #3 plastic food & household-related containers, plastic wrap, vinyl products of all sorts - and stop purchasing them. (These are Leonard's top two suggestions, so I'm taking them. Plus, they align with my three-month de-stuffing of my house anyway so I don't have to count them as new actions, right?)
2. Re-create the list of questions I used to keep in my wallet and pull out to ask myself before every purchase.  (Do I really need this? Could I borrow it instead? Does it harm other beings in any way? Does it harm me in any way? Can it be repaired? Reused? Recycled? Is it made locally?)  Then use it.

Just the Gist
Title: The Story of Stuff
Author: Annie Leonard
Genre(s): Non-Fiction
Year Published: 2010
Pages: 267 (with small print) plus 33 pages of end notes
Book's Website: (I recommend watching the 20 minute film there first.)
Overall rating: ****

I must say that - after years of research and work on this topic - I'm predisposed to agree with Leonard's case. That said, I must also note that this book is pretty relentlessly frightening and upsetting, and I found myself less and less inclined to pick it up again with every chapter, not because of the writing - which moved along smoothly - but because the content left me overwhelmed.  SO, I've concocted a few ideas on how to keep yourself engaged and calm while you keep reading.

For those ideas plus links to purchase your copy of The Story of Stuff:

Monday, February 21, 2011

Thriller: How I got schooled by Preston & Child

The last thriller I read was probably the early Crichton novel Sphere, about fifteen years ago, when I was stuck in what was then the near book-free town of Yankton, South Dakota.  (The area holds many charms, but few of them literary.)  I picked it up, used and dusty, from one of those rotating wire racks stationed next to the cash register of a second-hand store. 

As I recall, the sci-fi suspense kept my mind occupied - engrossed even, at points - across miles of flatland driving through Nebraska.

Truth? I felt grateful to have found it. 

But once I hit a real bookstore, I happily reunited with my literary fiction loves.  And I never looked back.

So: What drew me to Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child's latest foray into a genre they pretty well dominate right now?  Curiosity, I suppose.  Quite a few of my friends have recommended the pair's earlier works, and I wondered what P & C's latest protagonist, Gideon Crew, might offer the genre.  And - in truth - I wondered what the genre had become over the past 15 or so years. 

True to my earlier experience, this new thriller Gideon's Sword kept my mind occupied - engrossed even, at points - and would make light work of any extended travel drudge or waiting room eternity.  For such occasions, I highly recommend it, as it reads like the souped-up hybrid of another Bourne action flick and CSI: New York.  Although I admittedly have zero points of recent reference for contemporary adult thrillers (may I safely compare this to The Hunger Games and such YA fare? not sure), I'm giving this a qualified 3.5 of 5 stars for holding my attention and passing the time with an alacrity & intensity only occasionally marred by implausibility.

Some additional schooling: Curiously, this novel was both entertaining and unexpectedly heartening for me.  So if you're a relative novice to this genre, as I am - or if you just want a good laugh - tune in on March 2 to read my post on how Gideon's Sword schooled me in the elements of the contemporary thriller:  I think you'll find it a charming companion piece to this little review.

What'll I do?
* Check out Fulan Gong or Fulan Dafa - a form of Buddhist/Taoist exercise described winningly here - both online and, if possible, in my neighborhood.  I'm drawn to emulate the Yoda-esque Madame Chung whose all too brief appearance in the novel left me wanting more...
* Visit at least a few of the facades described here when I travel to New York City next month as most of Gideon's Sword takes place in that setting.  (If it's not too cold & snowy to gad about...)

Got a long wait coming? Get Gideon's Sword on February 22 at


(again, no affiliation with either site, nor Amazon neither)


Just the Gist
Title: Gideon's Sword
Authors: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Authors' Website:
Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Publication Date: Feb. 22, 2011 (tomorrow!)
# of Pages: 352
Stars: ***+

Sunday, February 20, 2011

runes & tunes: "Here Where Coltrane Is" and "Sir Duke"

Soul and race
are private dominions,   
memories and modal
songs, a tenor blossoming,
which would paint suffering   
a clear color but is not in   
this Victorian house
without oil in zero degree
weather and a forty-mile-an-hour wind;
it is all a well-knit family:   
a love supreme.
Oak leaves pile up on walkway
and steps, catholic as apples
in a special mist of clear white   
children who love my children.   
I play “Alabama”
on a warped record player
skipping the scratches
on your faces over the fibrous   
conical hairs of plastic
under the wooden floors.

Dreaming on a train from New York   
to Philly, you hand out six
notes which become an anthem
to our memories of you:
oak, birch, maple,
apple, cocoa, rubber.
For this reason Martin is dead;
for this reason Malcolm is dead;
for this reason Coltrane is dead;
in the eyes of my first son are the browns   
of these men and their music.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bourdain: Hot. And saucy too.

Taste his style: Look inside...
So many culinary puns, so little time.

Instead, try this quick quiz:

Do you dig Bourdain's snarky wit on No Reservations?
You're gonna love the R rated version in Kitchen Confidential.

Or does Tony's TV persona test your patience, plus you wish he'd tone it down with the cursing, already?
Take a pass on this one.

Not sure whether you'd take a cotton to him one way or the other?
Well then, let me put a few more questions to you:

* Always drooled over the "dangerous" guys in high school?
* Not afraid to get your hands dirty or to sully your mind vicariously, if only for a moment or two?
* Savor most things culinary and most people so inclined?
* Find yourself laughing at the bawdiest of good jokes and also the Oscar Wilde's and Jane Austen's of the literary landscape?

If you answered yes to the four plum-ish questions above, or if you're already a Bourdain-o-phile, then score yourself some herbs de Provence, a loaf of gloriously fresh-baked artisanal bread, and perhaps a freshly butchered rabbit or a hunk of grassfed beef plus the best of your seasonal, local, organic veggies, take a quick detour to your library or locally-owned bookshop for a copy of Kitchen Confidential, and then head back home to get that fabulous food braising in the oven while you settle in for a latte and a diverting monologue from the world's most semi-reluctant celebrity chef.

I did.  And, as you might surmise, this puppy gets you fired up to cook!  So...

Action Jump Starts
Creativity: Cook a simple (or complicated) French dish. OR buy a few of the chef-favored cooking implements Tony recommends, and then practice with 'em until you're an ace. (I keep using the diminutive 'Tony' like I know the guy. He'd surely smirk disdainfully at this overfamiliarity.)
Online Inquiry and Connection: Search out the very best of world cuisines in your town - perhaps the restaurants low on atmosphere but high on real homestyle cooking of the region.  Eat there.

Me?  I'm doing BOTH. 
And I'm morphing the latter with a twist that allows me to delude myself that breaking my "Choose. One. Thing." rule is a perfectly acceptable flip-flop:  I'm researching the best take-out joints and local chow near the hotels I'll be staying in on my BIG TRIP TO NYC!!!  This will save me scads of cash, partially offset staying in a more unique/upscale hotel (fingers crossed), and offer me the best of the best cuisine in the Best City On Earth.

Get the book. (Again, I'm not an affiliate so I don't get $ when you buy through these links. I just want to make purchasing it while supporting local, sustainable, literate living easier.)


Just the Jist
Title: Kitchen Confidential
Author: Anthony Bourdain
Genre: Culinary memoir
Publication Date: 2001, 2007
# of Pages: 312
Author's Website: (his blog w/link to the No Reservations site)

 p.s. I was oh-so-late to the party on this one, and Bourdain's a hopped-up work-a-holic, so he's got at least six additional books in print since Kitchen Confidential.  I can't vouch for those books, but you can bet they're on my TBR list.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Jellicoe Road: Out On A Limb at the Corner of Fate & History

click here to "look inside"
The search for a truly great young adult read continues. 

This 2009 Prinz Award winner (for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction) by Australian author Melina Marchetta provided diversion and certainly offers more than your average YA read, but right now that's as far out on a high limb as I will climb in praise of the novel.  (It's dangerous out there: read this book and see...)

And yet.  Imagine its teen appeal:

* Townies meet Cadets meet Academy students for war games.
* Violent death meets little girls in boarding school.
* Kidnapping meets cow manure.
* Innocent flirtation meets intense sex.
* The redemptive power of telling our stories meets a puzzle-piece mystery and a book within a book.

Throw in 80's pop references and the occasional nod to To Kill a Mockingbird and you've got yourself a YA novel.

If you're drawn to strong yet mercurial protagonists, teens battling to-the-pain using strategic military maneuvers, and family drama doused in a heavy dose of fate, then this just might be your next great read.

Action Jump-Starts
* Online Inquiry & Action:  Find out more about Australia, especially Jellicoe Road and the Australian bush.  Let me know if you sleuth out just where this road is. Me? Tried. MFB. OR 
Reach out to kids whose parents have died or must be absent.  Try Friends of Orphans or maybe National Foster Parent Association.  Offer to help.
* Creative Spark: Take an episode from your childhood and tell it like a fiction.  Offer suspense and challenge and intense emotion. Let it become a new story rather than history.
* Connection: Look up a long lost childhood friend or revisit a childhood memory, especially one that involved your friends and play out in nature. 

My action:  Connection.  In search of Gregory Shumeister.  My childhood pal from Jones Road. Wonder where that kid is now?  Anybody seen him?

Just the Jist List
Title: Jellicoe Road
Author: Melina Marchetta
Genre(s): Young Adult Fiction (Prinz Award winner)
Year Published: 2008
Pages: 432
Author's Website:
Overall rating: ***+

Get it at:



Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Blog Hop: Top Ten Literary Love Stories

(Nearly) Unrequited Love: Florentino Ariza for Fermina Daza in Love in the Time of Cholera neck and neck with Cyrano for Roxanne in Cyrano De Bergerac.  Only the soulless could fail to be moved.

Tainted Love: The Vicompte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil (and their love-targets as well) in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's infamous epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses.  The memorable epitome of twisted passions.

Selfless Love: Mundo Cani Dog, the perenially depressed, woeful, and timid soul who does something I can't tell you about because it would be a major spoiler, in The Book of the Dun Cow. If you haven't sampled Walter Wangerin's American Book Award winning fable-fantasy, you should, if only for Mundo Cani alone. I'm planning to pick up one of the newer editions to reread this year too.

Familial Love: Tom and Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.  Mother Earth births the Embodiment of Selfless Service to Humanity. Big Love Ensues. (Not that sort of big love, people.)

Enduring Romantic Love:
Janie and Tea Cake make this seeming paradox ring true in T heir Eyes Were Watching God.

Transcendent, Illuminated Love: The poets Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet) and Jalal Al-Din Rumi (esp. The Illuminated Rumi, Coleman Barks, tr. & Michael Green, ill.).  Ecstatic love made visible.

Love of Friend: Gogo and Didi, the epitome of imperfect, enduring amity in Waiting for Godot, tied with Charlotte's and Wilbur's cross-species devotion in Charlotte's Web.


And thanks as ever to The Broke and the Bookish for this latest blog hop.  Go check them out and find scores of additional book bloggers weighing in on the best love stories ever...

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lovers' Challenge: Paying It Forward, One Book at a Time

Ready to spread joy?  Check out this February challenge from One Mystake at a Thyme.

Click to jump to all of Jenna's ideas...
Jenna offers a plethora of options, those listed below among them.  As with my action jump-starts, they range from "sit-at-home: change-the-world" to "get-out-there-and-meet-people".
~ ♥ ~  Donate a handful of new or used books to a local charity, hospital, women’s shelter, school, prison, VA hospital, senior center, or crisis nursery.

~ ♥ ~  Buy a book for a child. You buy candy, video games, movies tickets, etc. When’s the last time you bought a book for a child?

~ ♥ ~  Is there a senior’s center or an assisted living facility near you? Do you already make regularly scheduled visits to see a grandparent, aunt, or sibling? Ask the activities coordinator if you can swing by one morning and read aloud to the residents. Short stories, poems, Bible verses, a section of a memoir or biography, etc… What a wonderful way to share the love of books.

~ ♥ ~  Do you compare books with coworkers? See if they would like to select a title and meet for lunch in a week or two to discuss it. Or - invite people to bring in whatever book they're reading. Everyone talks about a different book. You can discuss why it was selected, etc.

~ ♥ ~  Grab a friend and shop an indie bookseller in your community.

~ ♥ ~  An idea from Terry: contact an elementary school and ask if you can read out loud to the kids.

You get the idea... If you decide to try it, let me know and we can buddy-up to make sure we get 'er done.

My action:  The first one, with an adjustment.  I'm taking a box of books to our local library for their semi-annual fundraiser. 


Sunday, February 13, 2011

runes & tunes: "To His Coy Mistress" and "Besame Mucho"

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast;
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart;
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
   But at my back I always hear
Time's wing├Ęd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
   Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

                               - Andrew Marvell

For more wonderful poem-snippet valentines to print and send, click the carrots.

A smarty teacher-friend of mine just told me that she informs her students that she'll be teaching them an X-rated poem, and then trots this one out.  By the time they're done with it, they're all loving literature!  Can't say I'm surprised, with this racy little number offering itself up to their peeping eyes...

The Poet: Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was a Cambridge educated polyglot, teacher and creature of many additional hats (poet, politician, clergyman) and many pals (John's Milton and Donne, to name a couple).  This particular metaphysical poem has been alluded to by writers as various as Woodie Allen, Ursula LeGuin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It's also the source of the central phrase "World enough and time" used in the novel and film The Time Traveller's Wife.

And then there's a classic tune with a similar urgency: 
click the sheet music to hear the tune...
The Musician: Andrea Bocelli?  Come on: You know him.  Italian tenor & pop crossover artist promoted shamelessly by star-maker David Foster?  Handsome guy with the sexy voice who also happens to be blind?  Sings duets with Celine Dion and Sarah Brightman and Mary J. Blige and various Muppets?  Yes, him.

The Composer: Consuelo Velasquez wrote this hot little number in 1940, and it's been recorded by Elvis, The Beatles, Maynard Ferguson & Diane Schuur, Dean Martin, to name just a few.  Who knew that this young Mexican composer-concert pianist, who at age 24 had never been kissed, would pen such an enduring and malleable tune?  And she, like Marvell, served as a politician at times (she was elected to the Mexican congress). 

PLEASE support these poets & musicians who change us with their art.


FYI: Pairings for 'runes & tunes' are my own.  They might be thematically related or structurally or tonally or just associatively in some way that only my particular subconscious understands.  They'll be enjoyable always - worth a moment or two to read, to ponder, to listen, to ponder again.

Friday, February 11, 2011

New This Week: What do you think?

Book Blogger Hop

Good Day, Gentle Readers,

Here's the update (and perfect timing for this particular blog hop!):

I'm testing two new features this month, and would love you to weigh in with ideas for content (today, and any time!).

1. Runes & Tunes Sundays: A top-notch poem paired with a unique song.  Related by theme or tone or mood or... Scroll down to Sunday for "Dharma" and "Dixie the Tiny Dog".  This Sunday: It's all about PASSION, so come on back!

2.  The other feature won't be confined to a day of the week:  It's "hip to be reading"/"word news" - breaking news about reading and writing that makes an impact on the world.  Examples: Below.

Got a favorite poem or an upcoming event that links reading to positive action in the world (and positive action might just be making someone smile, so funny, current, reading-related websites, movies, etc. are welcome)?  Let me know!


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

House of Nice Neurotic Guys

Conversationally pleasant writing? 
Seems like a sweet, smart guy? 
Would welcome him as a colleague or neighbor or bud?  Check.

And also:
WAAAAAY Too Much Information?
David Sedaris's heir apparent?

It's somewhat a shame that David Ellis Dickerson's publishers insisted on using a quote comparing the dueling Daves to sell this memoir.  That's a mighty high bar.  Trading on their This American Life connection, no doubt, but did the label not realize that ranking him against one of the most edgy-yet-commercially-popular humorists in the current English-speaking world might beg negative comparisons?

So what is this book?  A memoir of Dave D.'s sojourn as a Hallmark card writer, and of his struggle to move beyond the Christian Fundamentalist doctrines that he outgrows during this period in his life.  Basically, that's about it.

Fun parts: 
- Inside scoop on the mind-numbingly audience-specific business of crafting greeting cards, one that quite reliably morphs creatives into OCD/neurotic/hollow husks of their formerly vibrant selves. 
- Detailed descriptions of Dickerson's card-writing process: intrinsically intriguing for writers and teachers of writing.  Thanks, Dave.
- Prose style that reads like listening to a particularly witty raconteur of a pal expounding on his quotidian trials and triumphs: a pleasant enough way to spend treadmill time.

Not so fun:
Specific details on every sex act he's ever indulged in or rejected or attempted unsuccessfully or felt guilty about: as aforementioned... WAY TMI.

Once again, the confused psychological territory of the memoir offers itself to our scrutiny.  Is it a vehicle for writers' auto-analysis or is it an edifying entertainment for readers? 

Anyhoo... Action Jump Starts:
* Creative Sparks: Dickerson invokes Saint Vitus, patron of comedians.  Who will you pick to be your own patron saint, muse, or patronus? OR
* Dickerson creates an hilarious Top 10 List which gets butchered by editors at Hallmark, rendering it entirely un-funny. Choose your favorite topic and create 5 ideas for top 10 lists that could be hilarious.  Then go ahead and make them happen.
* Connection: Dickerson, upon moving to St. Louis, MO from Tuscon, AZ, checks out churches in search of renewed faith and social connection.  His experiences inspired me to check out what's happening here.  I will research our local houses of Christian worship and visit one for this Sunday's service.
* Online Inquiry: Puzzler... This guy's a cryptic crossword puzzle creator, and his expansive lexicon conjured a grin or two.  Look up his puzzles online and do one, plus take a look at what he's been doing recently on This American Life.
* Online Action: I can't think of one for this book, so I attempted to compensate with three creative sparks. If you come up with one, please do add it in the comments and I'll revise...

My actions: Pick a patronus AND create 5 funny Top-10 memes, complete one, and offer them all to The Broke and The Bookish for future blog hops.

Just the Jist List
Title: House of Cards
Author: David Ellis Dickerson
Genre(s): memoir
Book's Website: (a division of check.)
Author's Website:
Year Published: 2009
Pages: 369
When was it read? January 17 and 18, 2011
Perfect Matches: Aspiring greeting card writers, This American Life aficionados, the frankly frank, writers and teachers-of-writing interested in craft/process for commercial forms
Perfect Timing: Fundamentalist Christians reconsidering their faith - moving toward more liberal worldviews, or anyone leaving a hometown for the first time in their late 20's
Perfect NOT: anyone uncomfortable with graphic sexual references, anyone who is a devout Fundamentalist Christian, anyone who doesn't want to be disillusioned about Hallmark cards
Rating (1-5): **
Why? It's a diversion, and for anybody who ever buys cards, instructive.  Other than that?
Get it:  (again - I'm not currently affiliated w/the stores below, just hoping to make access easy for you - the links below are direct to the book)


p.s. Mom: TMI = Too Much Information.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Top Ten: My firstborn child.

(Or, more likely, my next dog or imaginary friend might be named after...)

Pi (no, not 'Piscine Molitor Patel', just Pi).  Such a hip moniker on its own merits, gravitas-ed by his story within a story.

Jem Finch.  While the masses may say 'Atticus', I respond: But what about the next gen?  Wouldn't this make a beautifully cadenced first and middle name combo, with significant heroic substance behind it?

Olivia.  Like "Sting", one word says it all.

Harper (Lee) or Mick (Kelly).  Two smart tomboys with voices to die for.

Lucy (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe/The Chronicles of Narnia).  A spunky-sweet child evolves into a hero-queen (Lucy the Valiant).  Not a bad handle to carry around for inspiration.

Meg Murry from A Wrinkle In Time, etc. Math-science whiz of the mousy brown hair whose brainy love saves people and occasionally planets.

Vardaman from As I Lay Dying. (Dave said, "Vardaman?  Sounds like Voldemort."  Philistine.  So perhaps I'd end up scrapping this one, but this Faulknarian boy's enigmatic statement, "My mother is a fish," kept me pondering for days.  Not that I'd want my child to emulate Vardaman's tendencies exactly, but it's a pretty nifty-sounding name that would hang well on a dog.)

Kate.  As in Kate Vaiden, stellar protagonist of the eponymous novel by the late, great Reyolds Price, and as in Kate the Cat.  And I'll bet the derivative Katniss will crop up on many a list.  Why not?  Strong, smart, shrewd - if sometimes shrewish - women.

Indiana.  'nuf said.  There must've been a book. Right?

How 'bout you?  Which literary appellations would you add to your family tree?

Thanks again to The Broke and the Bookish for this blog hop! 


Monday, February 7, 2011

The First 2011 "Bad Fit Redeemed by Conversation with My Brilliant Friends" Award

goes to...The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan. 

To be fair:  If you don't know much about the formation of Israel and the resulting/continuing Palestinian/ Israeli conflict, this book will likely be thoroughly interesting to (and worthwhile for) you, because all the history of this important issue will be new, as will the narrative. 

ButI already know a fair bit about the complex history of the Palestine/Israel conflict, so when I encountered page upon page upon page upon page of detailed historical background info. shoehorned into what's marketed as a narrative of two families, a tree, and a house, I waxed increasingly frustrated.  Yes, the through-line here is the meeting and subsequent 'friendship' of Palestinian-born rebel Bashir Khairi and bookish young Dalia Eshkenazi, whose Bulgarian Jewish family took over his family's house in Ramla/Ramle after the expulsion of Palestinian families during the founding of Israel in the late '40's, but their story takes up less than one third of this book. 

Don't get me wrong: a certain amount of exposition/back-story is imperative for such a complex and controversial topic.  And I don't have any particular issue with Tolan's writing (generally solid journalistic style plus plenty of footnotes for some credibility, although it's an outrageously complicated subject).  Instead, as a reader I felt duped by the way this book was marketed as one thing and then turned out to be another. 

But when in conversation last night at book group: An exceptionally rich and (com)passionate discussion emerged about the issues related to the situation Tolan relates and also the potential impacts of current events on the region.  As usual, these brilliant people helped redeem a book that just wasn't a good fit for me.

So, book bloggers, I can't stress strongly enough: If you haven't found your perfect book group yet - either in person or on the interwebs - keep searching and adjusting, with grace and delicacy, but also with persistence.  When you find yourself in the right one, your life will be enriched immeasurably and you will look forward to these evenings of intense and funny and earnest conversation as sparks in the dark that illuminate both the book before you and your days to come.  Want ideas on how to make a good group great?  Ask me: I know.

Action Jump Starts:
* Online Inquiry & Action:  Listen to the episode of NPR's Fresh Air that sparked this book (on Tolan's Homelands website - just scroll down to find it).  Or try the follow-up interview on the NPR site (post book publication).  Or try the online documentary Promises about a group of Palestinian and Israeli kids who try to establish and maintain friendships "over the wall".  I am not sure how the website above got the video streaming for free, so you might want to buy a copy of the film instead:  Use the Promises site to take action toward promoting peace in the region.
* Creative Spark: This might provide a pleasant balance to the intense subject matter:  Consider the cuisine of this area and cook something delicious like baba ganouche or tabouli or Israeli couscous to nosh on while you're reading.  Lemons required. 
* Connection:  Consider current events in Egypt, Jordan, Syria... How will this affect the Israel/Palestine situation?  What, if anything, should the US or individual US citizens do in response to tensions in this area? Talk with a knowledgeable friend about it, or investigate together with a family member.  I think that NYTimes writer Thomas Friedman's often a good place to start, since he wrote From Beirut to Jerusalem years ago and still follows issues there quite closely.

My Actions:1. I listened to the NPR Fresh Air episode that initiated this book (scroll up: it's the first item in the list - just click for streaming audio).  45 minutes later, I can firmly state that the broadcast was MUCH more interesting than the book for me.  It actually follows through on the promise/premise: a single, intensely personal narrative with international ramifications. 
2.  And then I listened to a follow-up interview by Terry Gross with Tolan.  Also interesting.

3.  I was privileged to discuss this book with my esteemed friends. 

Get the book. (Again, I'm not an affiliate of either site, just offering easy access to what for most will be quite a worthwhile read.)


Sunday, February 6, 2011

runes & tunes: 'Dharma' & 'Dixie the Tiny Dog'

Daisy doing her dharma.
The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her dog house
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Ghandi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.

          - Billy Collins

Poems about animals can be tricky: treacly, in fact.  Or morbid.  Or just plain "off".  In my opinion, Collins offers something unsentimental yet emotive and worth considering here, and Mary Oliver does well with animal-inspired poems pretty frequently (though not always).  Who else? 

Remind me... Have you ever tried your hand at a poem with an animal focus?  Or can you recommend one that hits the mark?

The Poet
Billy Collins, former US poet-laureate, during his tenure in that position, created the excellent Poetry 180 site.  You might like to get one of his books and visit the sites.

'Dixie the Tiny Dog' 
here's the song. enjoy.

The Musician
"Dixie" by the way cool artist-musician Peter Himmelman.  Go check him out: One multi-talented man.


FYI: Pairings for 'runes & tunes' are my own.  They might be thematically related or structurally or tonally or just associatively in some way that only my particular subconscious understands.  They'll be enjoyable always - worth a moment or two to read, to ponder, to listen, to ponder again.

PLEASE support the poets & musicians who change us with their art.

Friday, February 4, 2011

It takes 10,000 hours to motivate a teen.

click for link to "look inside" at amazon.
Yup: That's the basic premise of Kathleen Cushman's Fires In The Mind, in which she collaborates with over 160 teens on "The Practice Project"; together they explore what it means to be an expert at something and what it takes to get there.  Then they apply it to what they learn in high school.  (website link:

This is a highly readable book for teens, parents, teachers, administrators, community members, and maybe even those politicians and billionaire business people who think they should be the ones deciding how to improve education in our nation.  The prescription here is decidedly different from just firing all us lazy, bad teachers. 

Instead, it involves what all us good, hardworking teachers already know:  To inspire teens and to help them make the most of their educational experiences, you need resources and structures in place to offer what's known as "project based learning" - real-world experiences that require collaboration, problem-solving, and rigorous inquiry, supported by knowledgeable adult mentors - plus opportunities for consistent "deliberate practice" of skills important to building expertise.  Of course, those resources and structures simply don't exist in many states where funding for education is being cut dramatically, technology is antiquated and/or unreliable, and class sizes are over 30 and growing. 

However, many of the ideas for curriculum from the teens and Ms. Cushman can be pretty low-tech and look quite promising.  Cushman sees her role as - in part - bringing the voices of teens to the national conversation on education, and she offers a polyphony here, which makes this book a real page-turner.  Students offer up their experiences as experts in theater or cooking or playing the banjo or cross country running while they interview experts and each other to thoroughly define the notion of expertise and to determine how practice and performance factor into its development.  And Cushman offers up many pdfs for surveys and activities, as well as the students' suggestions to parents and teachers (and students themselves) for how to engage and sustain engagement in learning.

Even so, actualizing Cushman and company's curriculum model, which relies in part on inquiry groups going out into their communities and on class projects that offer direct benefit to those communities for over 30 teens at a time, 5 times a day, would be a major logistical, political, and legal challenge in many public school classrooms, certainly daunting and, in some cases, insurmountable.  
(Mini Rant: Skip it if you wanna...Example:  It's suggested that each student be assigned tailor-made practice homework each night, rather than one assignment for the whole class, and that teachers review each and every homework assignment, noting individual needs and re-teaching each student as necessary.  So if a teacher has 150 students - the norm in many states nowadays - that's at least 30-50 different homework assignments to create for each night, even assuming that some students will have the same individualized issues.  And then how much time would it take per class period and at night to assess and reteach each student?  Combine those tasks and they'll add up to more hours than there actually are in a day, literally.  Oh, and then there's that pesky preparation for state and national high stakes tests, which would have to be shoehorned in somewhere. Oh, and then there are all those districts and schools who force teachers to deliver a "canned" curriculum in which every day is already prescribed for them, so they have no discretion to implement any of this.  Sigh.)
All those impracticalities aside, this could be one inspiring book for teachers, parents, administrators, and students who have discretion in creating their curricula and who are blessed with class sizes of less than 20 students.  And almost all teachers could incorporate some elements from this work into their classrooms, with positive results.

Jump-Start Actions:
* Online Action:  Participate in Education Weekly's online book group on this text this week. Take whatever actions result from the discussion. OR go to and take action in any of the ways they offer.
* Inquiry:  Visit and thoroughly peruse Let that inquiry lead you to others if you have the time.  Then send the link to at least three parents, students, or teachers whom you know personally, with a specific message on why you thought it might be valuable.
* Creative Spark: Think of a skill or pastime or sport or art form you've always wondered about but never taken the time to investigate.  Do it now, and make sure that you investigate an expert in that field as well.  Then do one thing toward learning your chosen activity. 
* Connection: Use any of the surveys/interview question sets in the book with an expert in your community.  You pick the area of expertise - something that inspires you, or something that's easy to do, like interviewing a family member or friend about an area of expertise you've rarely asked them about...

MY ACTION: I'm discussing at Education Week, and I'm starting right now! (and I already included some of Cushman's ideas in the Reading for Change work I'm doing, plus I'm recommending her book to a few of my colleagues...)

Teachers, parents, home-schoolers, teens, community members:  Here's how to get a copy of the book.

MFB (and I've definitely put in my 10,000 hours toward failing better, so I'm an expert!),

This book's got me thinking:  Could you read widely and then make all of your actions relate to an area of expertise you want to build?  Why not?  I've already got a plan for my reading in February and March, but I might just try it in April.  Yes indeedy, I just might.  And I'd want to focus on an area of expertise that brings me pure joy, like playing guitar or singing or dancing or writing poems or growing things or getting stronger or cooking.  Or maybe I could alternate between actions & books related to career expertise and those related to pure bliss.

click here to 'see inside'

And finally, for the Crazy-for-Books blog hopWhat are you reading right now and why are you reading it?

 I'm finally getting around to Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential

Why?  I just finished the book reviewed above and our book group discussed The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan about the Israel/Palestine conflict - last night, so I'm ready for a more lighthearted break before diving into The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. 

I adore Bourdain's No Reservations show and I heard an hour-long interview about his newest book, Medium Raw, and found him as snarky-charming as I would expect, so I thought his prose style would sizzle.  Here's to a tasty 'amuse bouche' (delicious bite) of a book before I tackle some more intense 'courses'.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Take me to Macondo.

Today's literary blog hop from The Blue Bookcase asks:
What setting (time or place) from a book or story would you most like to visit? Eudora Welty said that "Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most toward making us believe it...," so in what location would you most like to hang out?

That's it: Macondo.  Any place that Gabriel Garcia Marquez sought, let me seek.

Take me to the world of One Hundred Years of Solitude, of Love in the Time of Cholera.

Take me to the village of "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings". I will find him and free him and ask nothing of him and make nothing of him. 

I will embrace the many hundred Aureliano Buendias and look into the eyes of both Florentino Ariza and Dr. Juvenal Urbino and laugh with the innocent Erendira.

And I will have some peace there, some peace amid the passions of multitudes, amid a modern mythos. 

Yes, I shall go to Macondo.

                                                       Where would you go?
p.s. Anybody:  How do you get the proper accent marks in blogger?? I have tried and MFed.
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