Reading Round-Up: October 2018

As it’s November 15th, this post is pretty belated compared to usual — nevertheless, here’s a look at what I read in October:

  1. Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear (Kim Brooks)
  2. Spinning Silver (Naomi Novik)
  3. Mandy (Julie Andrews Edwards)
  4. Step Aside, Pops! (Kate Beaton)
  5. Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices that can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Curt Thompson)
  6. The Fourth Bear (Jasper Fforde)
  7. The Last Light of the Sun (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  8. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

Small Animals was already treated in its own post.

My only other nonfiction read last month was Dr. Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul, which took me most of the month to get through, reading it piecemeal in between other things. I will be the first to admit that the title makes it sound like total New Age woo-woo, but the opposite, in fact, is true. This book is a fascinating peek into developments in neuroscience related to the brain’s relative plasticity (or ability to change over time, something that was once thought impossible), attachment theory, and their intersection with traditional Christian spiritual disciplines/practices. Thompson talks a lot about how the way that things functioned in our families of origin can follow through our lives — unhealthy relationship patterns, modes of (non)communication, etc. — and how we can actually re-wire our brains with an understanding of how they work and the help of the Holy Spirit. He includes many exercises which one can complete singly in small groups. I think it’s a tremendously useful book for anyone who feels stuck in old patterns; it is helpful and hope-full. Even with that title.

For the rest of October, I glutted myself on fiction. Hey, sometimes a girl just needs to read about some fantasy Vikings, you know? In no particular order:

Mandy is another children’s novel by Julie Andrews Edwards, which I grabbed from the library after re-reading her The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles back in late September. It’s a sweet tale of an orphan girl named Mandy, who discovers a cottage on the estate abutting her orphanage. She determines to fix it up herself as a secret place, but trouble starts when her best friend wants to know where she goes by herself. There is a lot of good reflection on friendship, truth-telling, and similar moral lessons without ever being heavy-handed about it. And of course, the requisite happy ending!

I picked up a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at a thrift store, in part because I already own The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and thought I might as well make it a set, and in part because I hadn’t read it since grade nine or so and wanted to give it another go. This is a controversial novel, not least because of its copious use of the n-word to describe Jim and the other slaves who appear in its page. Does having racist characters  make it a racist book? I don’t know. Certainly the reader is brought on a journey with Huck as his eyes are opened to Jim’s fundamental humanity and they embark on what I do think is a real friendship. Twain shows us a lot of racial ugliness, but I don’t think he condones it. It’s a funny book, and a profoundly sad one in many ways as well. I had forgotten, however, that Tom Sawyer is an insufferable twit — I’m glad that he was only present in the last few chapters.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian fantasy writer whose work I have read and admired for many years; The Last Light of the Sun takes place among the aforementioned fantasy Vikings, as well as the Celts. And the Britons. And fairies. And lots, lots of bloody swordfighting. The Last Light of the Sun is set in the same world as The Lions of al-Rassan (one of Kay’s absolute best, for my money) and the duology of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors.

Step Aside, Pops! is a collection of Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant comics, which have stopped running but are still accessible on her website. It’s mostly historical and literary silliness; here’s Charlie and the Marvelous Turnip Factory, and some Canadian stereotypes.

Jasper Fforde writes some wonderful books — I first found him through the (incredible) Thursday Next series, which starts with The Eyre Affair and goes on for… another five? or six? I’ve lost count. Anyway, he has also written a spin-off series of Nursery Crime novels, featuring detective Jack Spratt and a zany crew of literary costars, including an incredibly dull alien named Ashley (aliens have come to earth and it turns out that they are boring). The Fourth Bear involves a missing journalist known as Goldilocks, human/bear political machinations, a giant homicidal gingerbread-man, and nuclear cucumbers. It’s a fun ride.

Last, but certainly not least, we come to Spinning Silver, the latest of Naomi Novik’s fairy-tale-esque books. I read her Uprooted a few months ago, and promptly put Spinning Silver onto my library holds list. It’s a broad retelling/resetting of the Rumpelstiltskin story, with ice fairies and fire demons and it was so immersive that I read it in a day, and probably would have read it in one sitting if I hadn’t had to keep stopping to do things like feed my children. As one does. Spinning Silver was perhaps even better than Uprooted — and that, I think, is saying something.

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Weekend reading: conflicting kingdoms, radical Sabbath, and a lost PIN

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. Elections and Kingdoms (hopeforhome.blogspot.com)

In a democratic republic such as the United States, the politics of the nation are simply a reflection of the hearts of the people. Fallen and unredeemed people elect godless and corrupt leaders. And, as the church has focused more and more on political solutions and less and less on disciple making, we have seen the nation decline, along with the quality of our leaders. Increasingly we find ourselves holding our nose while we vote because the quality of the candidates of both parties have declined horribly. We tolerate words and actions from our leaders (and even defend them) that would have been absolutely intolerable 30 years ago. Yet the church continues to insist on political solutions and engagements even as it makes itself increasingly inefficient at reaching people for Jesus.
The only hope for our nation is Jesus Christ. And not Jesus Christ dictated from congress or the White House, but Jesus alive in us and our neighbors. And the only way for that to happen is for you and me to focus on making disciples by loving and reaching to people of all walks of life and background, regardless of their lifestyle, choices, or political opinions. And, in order to do that, we have to tone down our politics and turn up our Jesus.

‘Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.’ The commandment smacks of obsolete puritanism – the shuttered liquor store, the cheque sitting in a darkened post office. We usually encounter the Sabbath as an inconvenience, or at best a nice idea increasingly at odds with reality. But observing this weekly day of rest can actually be a radical act. Indeed, what makes it so obsolete and impractical is precisely what makes it so dangerous.

When taken seriously, the Sabbath has the power to restructure not only the calendar but also the entire political economy. In place of an economy built upon the profit motive – the ever-present need for more, in fact the need for there to never be enough – the Sabbath puts forward an economy built upon the belief that there is enough. But few who observe the Sabbath are willing to consider its full implications, and therefore few who do not observe it have reason to find any value in it.

3. ‘I forgot my PIN’: an epic tale of losing $30,000 in Bitcoin (Wired Magazine)

I barely slept that night. The little shuteye I managed to get was filled with nightmares involving combinations of the numbers 1, 4, and 5. It wasn’t so much the $8,000 that bothered me—it was the shame I felt for being stupid enough to lose the paper and forget the PIN. I also hated the idea that the bitcoins could increase in value and I wouldn’t have access to them. If I wasn’t able to recall the PIN, the Trezor would taunt me for the rest of my life.

How to start reading poetry

I like poetry. I read it; I write it. Occasionally I end up talking about poetry with someone of my acquaintance, and what I often hear about it is some variation of “Oh, that’s great. I just don’t get poetry. But good for you, though.” And I think that’s sad; most of the time the impression I get is not that people don’t think poetry is worth their time, but that they think they’re not good enough, smart enough, insightful enough to engage with it. Probably their experience with poetry has been predominantly, or entirely, within the confines of a classroom. And so they conclude: I just don’t get poetry.

But really, that statement should sound as strange to us as saying “I just don’t get novels” or “I just don’t get magazine-length personal essays” or “I just don’t get television shows” — because the content, meaning, message, plot, etc. of each of these varies so widely from one to the next. We don’t watch one or two TV shows and then decide TV just isn’t for us; we recognise how broadly we need to sample before drawing that kind of conclusion. I don’t think I’m not good enough to read novels because I hated The Name of the Rose. All of these genre forms — screenplay, novel, essay, poetry, etc. — are vehicles for meaning, not the meaning itself. Poetry as a form is just one way of conveying meaning, often a highly structured way — but within the bounds of that structure, the poet has the freedom to say anything at all. Really anything: deep or shallow or profound or silly or fantastical or realistic or highly allusive or completely straightforward. I once read a lovely sonnet about mowing the lawn. (What’s more, I managed to find it again, and now you can read it too.)

But poetry has a popular reputation of being obscure, difficult, elitist, and arcane. I think a lot of it must have to do with the way that poetry is taught in schools — at least it was taught this way to me — where the emphasis is very heavily slanted towards academic analysis rather than experience or enjoyment. Now, don’t get me wrong; understanding what a poet is doing in a poem, and how they are doing it, can greatly enhance our appreciation of their work. But it still needs to be a secondary consideration. Before understanding we should be looking simply to experience a poem, to feel it out, to let it shape a response in us. Poetry is art; art is an invitation, not a treatise.

What’s the difference between understanding and experiencing? Consider this excerpt from John Ciardi’s wonderful essay, “How Does A Poem Mean?” (which I highly recommend reading in full):

The point is that the language of experience is not the language of classification. A boy burning with ambition to become a jockey does not study a text on zoology. He watches horses, he listens to what is said by those who have spent their lives around horses, he rides them, trains them, feeds them, curries them, pets them. He lives with intense feelings towards them. He may never learn how many incisors a horse has, nor how many yards of intestines. What does it matter? He is concerned with a feel, a response-to, a sense of the character and reaction of the living animal. And zoology cannot give him that. Not all the anatomizing of all the world’s horses could teach a man horse-sense.

So for poetry. The concern is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience. There will never be a complete system for “understanding” or for “judging” poetry. Understanding and critical judgment are admirable goals, but neither can take place until the poem has been experienced, and even then there is always some part of every good work of art that can never be fully explained or categorized. It still remains true that the reader who has experienced most fully will finally be the best judge.

When we start in by working to analyze and judge rather than allowing ourselves to simply experience, we get so wrapped up in trying to “figure it out” that we completely miss the point. We forget that it was written to be enjoyed, not dissected. We end up like the students in Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry”:

Introduction to Poetry (by Billy Collins)

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Do you think you’re not good enough to read poetry? Would you like to start experiencing it instead of beating it to death? Put down your hose. Relax a little. If you’ve found poetry inaccessible in the past — or if you’ve been inadvertently taught to find it inaccessible — let go of the idea that you have to understand everything that’s going on. Don’t worry about identifying or labeling each discrete element or its function within the poem. Don’t label at all. Just read — broadly, widely, with no expectation other than to receive and respond. Here are a few more tips, in no particular order, about how to get started.

1. Read around. There are hundreds of styles of poems on a million different themes out there, and the best way to find what you like is to sample widely. Go to your local library and look in sections 811 or 821 for anthologies. Try something like The Norton Anthology of Poetry or The Best American Poetry or Good Poems (ed. Garrison Keillor) for a nice broad sampling. If you prefer to read online, head over to poetryfoundation.org or rattle.com or poets.org and click on anything that looks interesting. If you find an author you like, try looking for their “Collected Works” or “Collected Poems” to sample their best.

2. Start with contemporary poets. Poetry loses some of its natural oompf when we are removed from it in time, because we don’t intuitively understand the cultural/political backdrop against which it is being written. But lots of poets are writing about things that are happening right now. A great resource for brand-new poetry is Rattle’s “Poets Respond” section, which collates poetry written in response to events in the past week, every week. As an example, here is Devon Balwit’s poem, “Jew”, responding to the recent shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

3. Start with poetry written for children. Poetry written for children is less concerned with Imparting Great Meaning and more concerned with the joy of language, rhythm, word, and sound. Try Shel Silverstein or Edward Lear or a nice big collection of nursery rhymes.

4. If you find a poem you like, read it two or three times. Repetition often clarifies meaning (like when a shift or twist at the end changes our impression of what’s come before). Read slowly. Doing this often will help you read more attentively, to start to see what a poem is doing and how it is doing it, without the burden of formal analysis. You will understand more than you thought you could.

5. If you find a poem you don’t like, move on. Read something else. Don’t dismiss the entire genre because of a few bad reading experiences.

6. Start with more “plainspoken” poets. If you’re just venturing into poetry, jumping straight into something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is probably not going to be all that helpful. This past year I have discovered some wonderful poets who write with breathtaking clarity. Try Mary Jo Salter or Billy Collins or Mary Oliver or Ted Kooser or Gwendolyn Brooks.

7. Remember that taste is subjective. You’re not obliged to like any of the poetry “greats”. You’re not even obliged to read them at all. What I like you might think is complete bosh, and vice-versa. All of this is fine. Just as liking novels (in general) doesn’t mean you have to like any particular author, liking poetry (in general) doesn’t mean you have to like any particular poet or poem.

8. Be open to delight. Let poems surprise you. Read with a sense of expectancy. And enjoy!

Anselm’s Afghan (III)

Good news: I’ve finished the third panel on Anselm’s afghan! Bad news: I totally pooched my counting and it’s gone kind of trapezoidal. Good news again: this is a gift for a four-year-old, and so while I’m not exactly trying to screw it up, I’m not especially worried about it either. At this point, we’re shooting for completion rather than perfection.

What I was pleased to find was that my theories about how it would work to join up with the other panels while working perpendicular to them were correct — and if I had been paying better attention while doing the entrelac, it probably would have ended up closer to rectangular. Oh, well… it will have some lumps and bumps. (Actually, as I type this I remember that one of the challenges was that this skein was woven a little thicker than the other two despite being the same weight of yarn — so that extra thickness is also playing a role).

Here is a close-up the join between panels 1 and 3. The colourway for this third panel is “Spirit” (still Lion Brand Mandala) and it’s the last colourway to be added — the next four panels will all be repeats: one more each of Spirit and Genie, and two of Thunderbird.

It’s not perfect by any stretch, but I’m pretty pleased with how this is coming along, especially since it’s my first time planning and executing such a big project. The colours work well together — next up comes another long panel of the Thunderbird, for a big pop of colour in the centre. I might start running out of couch space for displaying it after that point… this is going to be pretty big.

Weekend reading: boys and girls go out to play

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. What are we teaching boys when we discourage them from reading books about girls? (Washington Post)

For the first time I had evidence that contradicted everything I’d been taught about boys and reading. I started to pay more attention and found I did in fact have many boy readers — most likely hundreds of thousands of them at this point, but they’d been reading in secret because they were embarrassed. I got better at noticing the myriad ways adults teach boys that they should feel ashamed for taking an interest in a story about a girl, from outright (“Put that down, that’s a girl book”) to subtle (“I think you’ll like this book even though it’s about a girl”). There is peer shaming as well, but it starts with and is supported by adults.

I’ve now asked thousands of kids the same question: “What kind of books do you like?” They answer: fantasy, funny, comics, mystery, nonfiction, etc. No kid has ever said, “I like books about boys.” Yet booksellers tell me that parents shop for their sons as if books have gender: “I need a boy book. He won’t read anything about a girl.”

2. Playing, with fire: How much risk should we expose our kids to? (Macleans)

We have this growing movement to what I call anxiety-based caregiving—caregiving where decisions about childhood and what children need are made based on anxiety, rather than stepping back a bit and thinking about what might be best for child development. You’re in a playground and you hear, “Be careful!” “Get down!” “Watch out!” Those are things that are based on anxiety, not on stepping back and thinking: What does the child hear when you’re saying those things? What the child hears is: “The world is a dangerous place. You don’t trust me to navigate that world. I need you to take care of me; I can’t be independent myself.”

3. The Everlasting Joy of Terrifying Children (The Atlantic)

Stine’s scaremongering is palatable to young readers, he told me, because his stories aren’t ultimately tragedies. “I think that’s a really big part of it,” he said. “Every single Fear Street has a happy ending.” Having just reread the first in a trilogy of Fear Street novels called 99 Fear Street, about a family that unknowingly moves into an evil house, I gently corrected him. That story ends—spoiler alert—with one child forever stuck in the wall, another dead, a father who is blind, and a mother who has lost her mind. Stine dissolved into laughter. “That’s horrible,” he said. “Who would write a thing like that for kids?”

4. Sometimes I ignore my children, and that’s okay (rageagainsttheminivan.com)

I am not a butler.
Nor am I a maid. I don’t jive with the idea that we need to “stand in waiting” in case our kids need something. I don’t want my kids to assume that this is my role, either. I’m available – always. But I’m going to preoccupy myself in the moments that I’m not needed, or when they are preoccupied. The idea of standing-in-waiting for my children is ludicrous. If everyone is engrossed in play or in a book, I’m going to find something to do. I may watch and film and cheer when they master the bike ramp for the first and third and fifth time. But by the 100th pass? I might find something else to do. And I think my kid may be okay, because I’m quite fine with them understanding that not every single moment in life is about them.