Tag Archives: books

A great book for parents & teachers

talk to me first

Time for another episode of Rebecca Recommends!

I recently read Talk To Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “”Go-To”” Person about Sex by Deborah Roffman. Alongside books like the Robie Harris sexuality books (It’s Not The Stork for ages 4 and up, It’s So Amazing for ages 7 and up, and It’s Perfectly Normal for ages 10 and up), and Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex, Roffman’s book is an excellent, excellent resource for parents who want to encourage healthy sexuality in their kids.

Roffman’s book is about much more than sexuality. Really, it’s about how we talk to children, and what children need from the adult nurturers around them so that they know how to make smart, thoughtful decisions. She talks about what children need, and based on those needs, she describes communication as a five piece suit, composed of 1) affirmation, 2) information, 3) clarity about values, 4) setting limits, and 5) anticipatory guidance.

Soon after I started reading it, I had a conversation about something else difficult (I can’t even recall what it was, but I know it didn’t have to do with sexuality) using Roffman’s ideas, and was able to navigate the awkwardness with grace and honesty. In terms of discussing sexuality, I have my own baggage and tricky spots—and Roffman’s book helped me approach some of those things that previously felt too scary or uncomfortable.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to help guide children toward strong, healthy adulthood.

Clotherings and other silky prose

iron gates

The Iron Gates by Margaret Millar

Lately, my daughter has referred to a book we’re reading (The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman) as “silky.” She’s talking about the prose. I had said it’s really good to read aloud, and she said yeah, it’s silky. I agree. And I love the word “silky” to describe prose.

The Iron Gates, by Margaret Millar, is blowing me away for many reasons (great noir fiction, really effective point of view stuff breaking many rules, depiction of broken womanhood, etc.) including that its prose is silky. A few passages I love are below. I’m not bothering with context. You can read the book if you want to—and I hope you will. You might need to hunt on abebooks, or find it at the library, either of which is good for you, anyway!

**

“When she had gone Lucille sat down on the edge of the bed. She was barely conscious. Though her body was upright and her eyes open, it was as if she was almost asleep and her mind in labor and heaving with dreams, little faces, willow fingers, roses of blood, clotherings and a pellet of rice, did you count the spoons, nurse?, hard dead flesh of macaroni, doing as well as can be expected, are these roses for me, for me, for me?

Willow drowned in a tub. Soft dead willow floating hair and headache in a tub.

Superintendent!

How smooth, how dear, how dead. Come Cora Cora, come Cora.

Super—in—ten—dent!

Grape eyes mashed, rotten nose splashed on a wall, I’m sure you’ll love the soup today, it floats the willow, nursie, nursie…

Suddenly she leaned over and began to retch.

Miss Scott came running. ‘Mrs. Morrow! Here. Head down. Head down, please.’

She pressed Lucille’s head down against her knees and held it. “Breathe deeply, that’s right, that’s better. We’ll be fine again in a minute. It must have been something you ate.’

Miss Scott took her hands away, and slowly Lucille raised her head. She knew Miss Scott was there, she could see her and hear her, but Miss Scott wasn’t really there, she was a cloud of white smoke, you could wave her away with your hands, blow her away, she didn’t matter, she couldn’t do anything, she wasn’t there.” (p. 117)

**

“While he was waiting for the attendant he opened the newspaper and read the want ads. Later he would read the whole thing, but the want ads were the most fascinating part to him. He could, offhand, tell anyone how much it cost to have facial hair permanently removed, how many cocker spaniels were lost and mechanics were needed, the telephone number of a practical nurse and what you did, supposing you owned a horse and the horse died.

Bird’s eye view of a city.” (p. 149)

**

“Miss Eustace opened the window and sat down on the edge of her cot to take off her slippers. The last thing she did before she went to bed was to cover Lucille.

Lucille tossed and turned in her sleep under the light blankets that seemed to bind her legs and waist. Her sleeping mind was alive and sentient in her fingers, her nipples, her hips, her thighs, the sensitive palms of her feet; but it seemed to lie caught in a net of words. Miss Eustace my father and my murther flusttering in the aviary tower in vanity all inanity ah night my sweethurt take me out of the dunjuan through the griefclanging door to the godpeace of sir night. She struggled in the web of words, the blankets fell to the floor, and the web parted.” (p. 162)

**

“He stood on the veranda for a moment and looked across the park where the phallic points of the pines were thrust toward the sun. He felt outside time, naked and frail and percipient. Evergreens and men were growing toward decay. Time was a mole moving under the roads of the city and imperceptibly buckling the asphalt. Time passed over his head in a thin gray rack of scudding clouds, as if the sky had fled away and its last remaining rags were blowing over the edge of the world.” (p. 241)

Hooray for Shadows And Tall Trees 7!

Today’s reward for grading student work: Get up and go to the mailbox and see that Shadows And Tall Trees 7 has arrived. Turn to page 205 and see the story you wrote!

(I’m so grateful to have my story “Curb Day” among these pages. Thank you, Michael Kelly. You can buy a copy of this great anthology at Undertow Publications in hardcover or paperback.)

Something important to read

girls-sex-cover

When I heard about the fabulous Peggy Orenstein‘s new book, GIRLS & SEX, I thought it would be important for me to read because I’m raising a girl. The more I read of the book, the more I believe it’s important for ANY of the following people to read:

  • Those who are raising any gender of child;
  • Those who ever were any gender of child;
  • Those who want to take down mysogyny while encouraging healthy sexuality for all genders.

If you are a person in any of those categories, I suggest you check it out.

Fragment of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

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(Found at Omega, on the ground, or in the water.)

At the Omega Institute in July, I read the fabulous Maggie Nelson’s book, Bluets. I marked a passage on p. 81. I wasn’t exactly sure why, except that something resonated. Today as I typed it before returning the book to my friend Melissa, I see its connection to the work of WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE, and oddly, to a short story I’m working on. But when I marked this passage, I wasn’t even working on the story yet.

This is how it works sometimes.

“202. For the fact is that neuroscientists who study memory remain unclear on the question of whether each time we remember something we are accessing a stable ‘memory fragment’—often called a ‘trace’ or an ‘engram’—or whether each time we remember something we are literally creating a new ‘trace’ to house the thought. And since no one has yet been able to discern the material of these traces, nor to locate them in the brain, how one thinks of them remains mostly a matter of metaphor: they could be ‘scribbles,’ ‘holograms,’ or ‘imprints’; they could live in ‘spirals,’ ‘rooms,’ or ‘storage units.’ Personally, when I imagine my mind in the act of remembering, I see Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, roving about in a milky, navy-blue galaxy shot through with twinkling cartoon stars.” —Maggie Nelson, Bluets, p. 81

Tara Ison’s REELING THROUGH LIFE

 

reeling through life

When I write about books on my blog, I aim to write smart, insightful posts. I want to sound like someone with important things to say, to say them with wit and economy, to sound casual yet sophisticated. This desire often stops me from writing anything, defeating me before I’ve tried. (The better I know the book’s author, the more pervasive this pattern and my anxiety.) Operationally, it goes like this: Read a (great) book, smile and glow and lovingly put the book on a pile in my office that I will write about some day. Sometimes I do write about the book. Sometimes the book just sits there waiting until I clean my office, and because it seems too much time has passed and no one in the blogosphere really needs or wants my opinion, I put it back on the shelf, and recommend the book to anyone I think would like it.

This dance has become unwelcome and leaves me with stacks of books, shame, guilt. But my inner story (that I am a lazy Literary Citizen, etc.) is no longer serving me, so I’m letting it go. From now on, my intention is to just write something, anything, about the books I want to tell you about.

**

I want to tell you about Tara Ison’s book, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned To Live, Love, And Die At The Movies.

I love this book.

I owned it for months before I read it. Though I was busy, I was also intimidated by the idea of not knowing all the films inside and out, and by how much I admire Tara and her work. Excuses, excuses! (Tara was among the fabulous core faculty at Antioch Los Angeles MFA program when I was there at school, and is an exquisite teacher and human. And since then, she’s become a friend.)

At night when I’m reading, it’s often in the last hour before sleep, and sometimes I’m so tired that I just fade out. I never faded out while reading this book. As I read it, I felt an urge not only to stay up too late, but also to eat the book—it was tasty and decadent and full of unexpected spice.

I know Tara, so I have the pleasure of hearing her voice as I read these essays. I’ve seen some of the films she mentions, not all, but for those I didn’t know, or didn’t quite recall, she gives context in graceful strokes. The experience of reading it was therefor not in the least disorienting. Nor did she overload on context. The balance was graceful and perfect.

Of the million gems between these covers, I marked a section on p. 107 (in “How To Be A Jew”): Tara’s writing about the film The Chosen (which I have not seen).:

“Next up for the boys, a movie house, for some Van Johnson musical confection; Danny is unimpressed, bored. But then the newsreel begins: The ‘Nazi Murder Mills,’ with documentary footage of American troops liberating the concentration camps. Here we go, I think, begin the parade of those brutal, brutal images I have seen so many times by now. Again, really? I do not want to watch them again, I do not want another fix—or want to trigger the need for another fix—but I find myself shaking, my heart quickening. And I realize what is moving me, here, is Danny’s reaction to them. It is his first time seeing these images, and his horror is newborn and unfiltered, uncynical, raw. There are tears in his eyes, his jaw is both tightened and slack, his face seems to lose its shape; he is disappearing into these images, the way I once did, and watching his pain both shames me and reawakens my own. This image of Danny, a fictional character in a fictional movie, does not detract from what’s real, or from what’s true; it brings me back to what is real and true, an essential part of who I am, as a human being and a Jew, and for that I am also grateful.

I will never forget.”

(This, this, is how fiction matters.)

So for anyone interested in how the cinematic image can inform, bend, and shape our lives, I recommend this book. But the book is not just about film. The generosity, the humanity on the page affirms life, makes me feel more human. Tara is willing to air her frailty. While she never seems to obscure a corner of her messy inside story, none of it feels gratuitous. Her acts of humanity in this work are evident and unvarnished. It’s deeply satisfying as a memoir and a study of (capital S) Story.

If you are interested in writing sentences, read this book, because Tara’s sentences will help you learn about writing tight, gorgeous sentences.

And on a larger level: how she weaves film with her life story is a model in hybrid models…the form she’s made feels so inventive. I haven’t read anything quite like this. To me, it seems that Tara has created in these pages a new form.

**

So there it is. I could have agonized and shaped this post more, but instead I’m going to go smile at Reeling Through Life, and then hold it in my hands for a few moments before I shelve it where I can find it when it’s time to reread. (And try not to eat it.)

(And I’m grateful, because I still have Tara Ison’s story collection, BALL, to look forward to!)

A book that might help

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Mountain/small rock, Laguna Beach, California, 4/3/16

Considering the controversy surrounding the Antioch Review’s publication of the article “The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate,” by Daniel Harris, I thought of Maggie Nelson’s genre-bending memoir, The Argonauts. (You can read an overview of the Antioch Review controversy here.)  (And I blogged a tiny bit about The Argonauts here.)

In The Argonauts I find a beautiful work of humanity. Reading it helped open my thinking about gender and the lack of imagination it takes to embrace the too-limiting gender binary. (As a writer and person who celebrates the human imagination, why should we only acknowledge two poles?) (I like to believe my mind and heart were already pretty open, but as a relatively straight, cisgendered woman, with a relatively well-understood path to walk, I have some distance to travel before I can truly understand less straightforward life narratives. As stories will do, reading the story of Maggie Nelson and Harry Dodge helped open me, helped me see a wider vista.) I recommend the book. In addition to its value as a work of social justice (and theory: it is quite accessible even to me, as someone outside of Theory) its lyricism is breathtaking.

What I find in Nelson’s book is a beautiful argument in favor of focusing on the particulars of being human, that specificity. For those of us who write fiction, this is an important part of creating character. (And as we create character in fiction, we have the opportunity to open the minds and hearts of our readers, to allow them to imagine another human’s inside terrain.)

Maybe the Antioch Review could invite Maggie Nelson to write for a future issue!

(On apologizing only when necessary) From The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson

argonauts cover

A stunning and exceptional book from Graywolf Press

I’m so grateful that my dear friend Melissa Tinker gave me a copy of Maggie Nelson’s amazing and gorgeous work of humanity otherwise known as The Argonauts. I adore this book, for about a million reasons. I have so much to say about it, and will, when time and thought allow. For now, here’s what I have stolen from the book today.

Sometimes as a writing warm-up, it’s useful to type up someone else’s well-written words. Today I typed up from p. 98 of The Argonauts.  As someone who has struggled all my life with equivocating and unnecessary apologizing, this passage speaks to me.

Maggie Nelson writes:

 

“Afraid of assertion. Always trying to get out of ‘totalizing’ language, i.e., language that rides roughshod over specificity; realizing this is another form of paranoia. Barthes found the exit to this merry-go-round by reminding himself that ‘it is language which is assertive, not he.’ It is absurd, Barthes says, to try to flee from language’s assertive nature by ‘add[ing] to each sentence some little phrase of uncertainty, as if anything that came out of language could make language tremble.’

My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later an slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.

At times I grow tired of this approach, and all its gendered baggage. Over the years I’ve had to train myself to wipe the sorry off almost any work email I write; otherwise, each might begin, Sorry for the delay, Sorry for the confusion, Sorry for whatever. One only has to read interviews with outstanding women to hear them apologizing. (Monique Wittig). But I don’t intend to denigrate the power of apology: I keep in my sorry when I really mean it. And certainly there are many speakers whom I’d like to see do more trembling, more unknowing, more apologizing.”

—Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, p. 98

 

Reading Krusoe

Krusoe_sleep garden

Jim Krusoe’s newest novel from Tin House

“If a person will only think about it, the first fountain pen was
undoubtedly the human body itself, with its seemingly endless
(till death do us part) supply of ink.” —p. 165, Parsifal

“A fountain pen forces no one to read its words.” —p. 224, Parsifal

As I read Jim Krusoe’s writing, which I’ve been doing for a decade and a half, I find it simultaneously familiar and strange. In his work, I hear a persistent drumming behind the prose, a call. My ears strain to grasp the sound; it’s just beyond my reach. It occurs to me that it’s similar to how the musician Bill Frisell allows his past themes to reemerge and weave into the texture of the new, Don’t I recognize that from somewhere? Familiar, strange. By these haunts, I’m both lulled and awakened. What does that memory mean this time?

In Krusoe’s work, that mystery gives me permission to dream while I’m awake. Or, perhaps, as Krusoe puts it on p. 75 of Parsifal: “Somewhere there must be a word, some technical term, for a combination of anticipation, nostalgia, and dread.”

Then there are the pens. The protagonist of his last novel, Parsifal (Tin House, 2012) repairs fountain pens. (Reminiscent of the protagonist in his first novel, Iceland, who repairs typewriters.) This persistent loyalty to archaic means of capturing story on page is a comfort in our era of disembodied ones and zeros. In the narrative weave of Parsifal, a sort of Aesthetics of The Fountain Pen emerges:

“‘In my experience,” Parsifal tells those who ask, ‘there are two kinds of people: those who enjoy complications and subtlety, and those who do not. If you are not the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety, then a fountain pen is not for you.’”—p. 191, Parsifal

I write first drafts on paper. The fountain pen is my primary tool. Wait! Am I “the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety?” Am I really? Or do I like things more tidy? Complications and subtlety are so messy! So uncomfortable! But evidently so appealing, so attractive. As a person who (apparently) enjoys complications and subtlety, the fountain pen thread was one of the primary pleasures as I read this novel. If we can trust the narrator of Parsifal:

“During the first years of fountain pens, prior to the actual Golden Age, which was roughly from 1910 to 1950—prior to the invention of the ballpoint, in other words—it is a little known fact that no fountain pen came with the small clip that holds it snugly inside a pocket of a shirt. That was invented by George Parker, of the Parker Pen Company, and ever since then it’s hard to imagine a pen without one (though some pens are still made this way, primarily for the Japanese market). So it is possible for something to come from nothing: no clip for many years, and then suddenly, a clip. And now, with the fountain pen practically extinct, the clip lives on, attached to ballpoints, and roller balls, and mechanical pencils, and laser pointers.”—p. 246

Jim Krusoe was my mentor in graduate school, and since then has continued to be a significant influence, inspiration, and support. In the classes I teach, we sometimes discuss why different writers write. I’ve never asked Jim why he writes, but I wonder if there’s a clue in Parsifal on p. 181, “Who was it that said our sole glory as humans is to leave behind a record of our crimes and desires?”

(Was it Jim Krusoe?)

His next novel, The Sleep Garden, arrived at my house yesterday. I cannot wait.

Melon gelato

img-ilgelato_250x188Doesn’t it feel like some books are too sacred to write upon? I go back and forth, and have various procedures. I’m embarrassed to say that for my favorite books (some of the ones I use for class) I have two copies on the shelf–one desk copy in which I’ve written, and one pristine. I always want the visually uncluttered reading experience, when possible…or at least I fantasize that somehow I can go back to the time of that first reading, and experience it again.

Now it strikes me that it’s like a specific cone of melon gelato I had in Italy last month. The melon gelato was so good, I immediately wanted to experience that cone again. I sit at my desk in Ohio and regret not going back for another, but it would not have been the same.

(I think the gelato was here: http://www.gelateriamillevoglie.it/ilgelato.html)