Three Audible Notes from Old New Yorkers

My New Yorker pile may sit for months, even years, but I usually find something between the old covers.  Although I was looking for suggestions for audible books, I did not expect to get ideas from an article on Willa Cather or Adam Gopnik’s 2017 review of Ron Chernow’s historical biography, Grant.

Gopnik’s review of Chernow’s Grant did not inspire me to read the book; I’ll wait for the Broadway musical.  But his reference to “the funniest thing ever written about Grant…James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” led me to the Thurber collection – The James Thurber Audio Collection, read by Keith Olbermann.  Thurber is one of my favorite humorists; I still have a copy of The Thurber Carnival from my college days.51X6jSZbZBL._SL500_

If laughter is healing, this is great medicine.  The first essay – “There’s No Place Like Home” – first published in the New Yorker in 1937 – had me laughing through Thurber’s interpretation of a French-English Dictionary for travelers.  Who knew how funny it could be to hear a translation for asking for directions.  For my adventure loving travelers, the next story is called “The Bear Who Let It Alone.”  I’m looking forward to all the other twenty-two stories.

51BroN3HRXL._SL500_  Touted as the book Cather considered her best, Death Comes to the Archbishop, was the focus of Mary Duenwald’s essay on a trip to New Mexico for a 2007 essay in the New York Times Travel section – Entering The world of Will Cather’s Archbishop.  The story follows

“Cather’s portrayal of Jean Marie Latour (her fictional name for the real-life bishop, John Baptist Lamy) paints a complicated but very romantic picture of New Mexico in the mid-19th century, just after its annexation to the United States…her book provides a realistic account of the bishop’s efforts to replace the lawless and profligate Spanish priests of the territory, his visits to a beloved Navajo chief, his friendship with the Old West explorer Kit Carson and his dream of building a cathedral in Santa Fe.”

51CXbQEFAXL._SL500_Dan Chiasson’s essay on Emaily Dickinson focused on a 2017 publication of the Envelope Poems, a small book similar to the handmade books the poet made as gifts.  Some of her poems, later found on backs of used envelopes, are included in the selection. Because the Envelope Poems include actual transcriptions of Dickinson’s handwriting, with facsimiles of her layout and her process (crossings-out, substitutions, etc.), the book is to seen more than heard.  However, reading the article – Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry – gave me a better understanding of the poet, and had me thinking how nice it would be to listen to some of her poetry.

Audible has several possibilities, one with a collection – Fifty Poems by Emily Dickinson read by Jill Eikenberry, Nancy Kwan, Melissa Manchester, Jean Smart, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep, and Alfre Woodard – a 44 minute respite.

I’m listening…

 

The Twelve Books of Christmas

Unknown   Despite the song, the real twelve days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and continue through the eve of the Epiphany (Twelfth Night). But the countdown to Christmas may start as early as December 1st if you have an Advent Calendar and sometimes right after Halloween in shopping malls.

With twelve days left, here is a short list of Christmas themed books you might have missed.

  • Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Leviathan

What would you do if you found a notebook in the stacks of a New York City bookstore with a mysterious note, challenging you to solve a mystery?  In this young adult book, the authors of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist create a quirky and delightful story combining a love of books with teenage first love.

Lily, an avid reader and dog walker, has written a set of clues and challenges in a red notebook and left it on her favorite bookstore shelf hoping for the right guy to find it.  Dash (short for Dashiell), a lover of books and yogurt, finds the notebook and they begin passing it between them with clues, sometimes literary, leading each to new places and experiences around the city during Christmas.

  • Agatha Christie Christmas Mysteries

A Christmas family get-together abruptly ends in a murder with Hercule Poirot called in to investigate in Hercules Poirot’s Christmas, and in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (a wonderful BBC audiobook), Poirot finds a scrawled note on his pillow: “DON’T EAT NONE OF THE PLUM PUDDING. ONE WHO WISHES YOU WELL”.  A fun alternative to listening to The Night Before Christmas.

9781509848195  Pablo Picasso’s Noel by Carol Ann Duffy follows the famous painter as he moves through a small town in the south of France on Christmas Eve, drawing the residents and the festive scenes he encounters, accompanied by his small dog.

  • The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus by Dr. Hannah Fry provides mathematical proof of Santa with puzzles and games.
  • Christmas: A Biography by Judith Sanders gives a social historian’s examination of the origins, myths, legends and history of the season.
  • Christmas with the Savages by Mary Clive, a funny children’s story based on real events and people, is seen through the eyes of a prim eight-year old girl in a large Edwardian country house.
  •  Christmas Remembered (audiobook) by children’s author Tommy dePaola shares his love for Christmas in fifteen vivid memories, spanning six decades – as a teenager in Connecticut, an art student in Brooklyn, a novice monk in Vermont, and an artist in New Hampshire.

To get to twelve, try some Charles Dickens:  The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, A Christmas Tree, and The Holly Tree – all available on line at Dickens on Line.

 

 

 

 

 

National Poetry Day in Britain

logo-no-dateIn the United States, April is designated as National Poetry Month, but September 28th is Britain’s National Poetry Day with this year’s theme of freedom.  The official website offers many poems – Poems on Freedom – not all by British poets, but I like this one by Mary Coleridge:

I had a boat, and the boat had wings;
And I did dream that we went a flying
Over the heads of queens and kings,
Over the souls of dead and dying,
Up among the stars and the great white rings,
And where the Moon on her back is lying.

One of my favorite poets is William Butler Yeats, who received the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature.  When I was in Dublin, I visited the exhibition of his work at the National Library of Ireland, and I bought a small illustrated anthology of his poetry – one of the books I treasure on my limited bookshelf.

Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree is among the poems on freedom included by the National Poetry Day site. Perhaps you remember memorizing it in school. My favorite stanza…

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

As I read through my small volume of Yeats: Romantic Visionary, I was struck by this one:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

The Chalk Artist

9781400069873_p0_v1_s192x300   Allegra Goodman cleverly combines the worlds of computer gaming with poetry and art in The Chalk Artist.  Through her three main characters’ disparate interests: a young man, Colin James,  with a untapped artistic talent; his true love, Nina Lazare, a struggling idealistic teacher; and a bright teenager caught in the hypnotic trance of an imaginary computer game world, Goodman addresses their common element – the need to relax into themselves to find happiness.  But this is not a book about art or romance or happiness; it is about gaming.

Just as Nathan Hill used one of his characters in The Nix to demonstrate the evil effects of addiction to computer games, Goodman targets the dangers of living in the virtual world by having her teenage character, Aiden, play to exhaustion and eventual hospitalization.  Hill had his character sleep his way into a new life, but Aiden’s addiction is harder to kick.  Surprisingly, his young English teacher, Nina Lazarre, leads the way with poetry.

In a complicated riff on the effects of computer games on teenagers, Goodman connects her characters with the game itself.  Nina’s father is the wealthy game developer.  Recognizing Colin’s potential when she meets him waiting tables and drawing on chalkboards, she helps him get a job drawing dragons and avatars for her father’s new game.  Through a marketing ploy, Aiden, who happens to be in Nina’s American literature high school English class, gains access to the unpublished game, and falls into the pit of nonstop playing, disregarding his school work, his family, his life.

The story jumps around from Colin’s descent from pure artistry to the cynical world of marketable images for the company, then to Nina’s frustration over not being able to convey the magic of Shakespeare to eleventh graders, then to Aiden’s downfall from A student to disaffected drone in school.

Goodman’s descriptions of the virtual world have the most impact, as Aiden’s gaming takes on more reality than the real world.  The effect of dissolving, at times, into a movie set rivaling The Neverending Story or The Hobbit can be disconcerting, and its believability easily demonstrates how Aiden could have difficulty leaving a place where he is a knight conquering monsters to return to his teenage world of angst and uncertainty.

Sometimes the action seems as fast and furious as the virtual gaming the author is describing, and connecting the three plot lines can be a little harrowing.  Not everyone will appreciate Goodman’s style, but her intent is clear.  Eventually, Aiden finds his way by participating in a poetry recitation contest.  The sixteen year old finds wisdom through an Ezra Pound poem that demonstrates the universality of his feelings, realizing that “these lines scared him,” that “a stranger had been telling his secrets, publishing his dreams before he was born.”   English teachers all over the world who read these lines will rejoice and have their faith restored – someone finally got it.

If you get to the ending, you will find it dutifully romantic, with a final nod against the computer world, as Colin leaves his lucrative yet artistically confining job to find true love with Nina, and venture into the indie-animation world.

Not a compelling book, The Chalk Artist was easy to put down.  Nevertheless, Goodman, who has a Ph.D. in English, had a clear message – good literature outweighs virtual reality, and relationships are far more important than video games or chalk dust.

 

A Brief Detour into Nonfiction

 

9780374156046_p0_v2_s192x300  Flâneuse

After wandering around New York City with Lillian Boxfish in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse seemed a natural follow-up.  In a series of essays, each targeting a city – Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, Elkin introduces the concept of the Flâneuse  – a woman who is “determined, resourceful…keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”  Whether or not you are familiar with each city, her attention to the idiosyncrasies of the neighborhoods connects you to the landscape. As she addresses famous women who have walked the cities – Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and others – a connection between creativity and the dangers of women’s striving for independence in a man’s world emerges.  I have not yet finished the book – had to take time out to take a walk.

9780062300546_p0_v6_s192x300   Hillbilly Elegy

I was determined not to read this book, but too many like-minded friends urged me to try  J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.   Although Vance’s conversational style makes the book easy to read, the misery detailing the violence, poverty and addiction in poor white communities makes it hard to digest.  So much has been written about the book, both as social commentary and political influence (see reviews in The New Yorker and  major newspapers), but basically the memoir is sad and depressing – despite the author’s rise from poverty to the Marines and finally Yale Law School – yet, raising awareness and asking questions.

61eioJoO+wL._AC_UL160_  The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

The English translation of Korean Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down offers a series of short essays followed by short messages based on his 140 character tweets about faith and mindfulness.  The book reminded me of a gift I received years ago when I was in the throes of career building – Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.  Open either book at any page to get a short fortune cookie message with advice. Sometimes it is amazingly appropriate.