Friday, June 29, 2012

Wise Words: Dance

Where the hell is Matt?

Everywhere. And he's dancing.

More importantly, he lived his dreams back when they were just his dreams. By himself, with a stranger holding the camera, maybe even with a whole bunch of strangers who didn't know him from Adam — or they heard about this guy and thought it would be cool to just dance like a goofball.

Just think of what you can do if you lived your dreams: waltz in Vienna, perhaps? Dance underwater? (Seriously, he does it. Check out the video below.)

What's stopping you? Go dance.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Summer Reading, Gonna Have Me a Blast!

For the 12 weeks in summer, I chose 18 books for my list. See below.

For those who crying out, "What in the — Chris, no one can read all of those titles!" I offer them to you, from the top (but not necessarily in the order in which I will read them):

But wait: I have two on my Kindle to add to the list!

Counting Fifty Shades of Grey, which is on my nightstand, that brings the total to an even 20.

And that's just my list now.

Wait until I get going. I suspect there may be a swap-out based on a few discussions I've had. I also have to get The Hobbit re-read and Les Misérables read by the end of the year, which means I may have to begin them sometime this summer.

Without realizing it, nearly half are parts of series. I have separated them out so I myself can marvel at the cleverness of these writers sucking me in for multiple books.

For every book I read between now and the autumnal equinox, I will donate $5 to the Main Street Child Development Center. Also, I will choose three books to donate to the Fairfax County Regional Library (based on the library's Amazon wish list).

I give myself permission to discard any book that does not hold my interest. I give myself permission to swap out one book for another.

And I invite you to join me. Karen, our resident haiku-er, is in with a hefty list (see the comments of this blog). Stacy, another haiku-er, is in, too (see the comments of this blog). How about you?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Wise Words: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Take a step. Just one, today. A small one: pick up the pen, walk around the block, open the book.

The next step will be easier.

I promise.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

To David, On the Occasion of Our Anniversary

To My Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;     
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so persever,
That when we live no more we may live ever.

by Anne Bradstreet

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Summer Reading: This Year, Read and Share

There's something carefree about reading during the summer.

Even when I took summer school classes (for fun!), I always had extra time to read. In fact, many of the classes I took included reading lists that somehow seemed less daunting because the books could be read under a tree, on the beach, in a hammock.

I could tackle hefty books in the bright summer sunlight. I could breeze through light fare on the windswept beach of the Pacific Ocean of my childhood. There was nothing too huge that couldn't be faced in the summer.

One excellent source of summer reading lists was my local library. There was always a reading competition, an incentive to read more, the most, the best. Not to brag, but one year I read more books than any other kid in the library. The librarians ran out of prizes — which was even better because reading was its own reward.

But as I left school and found myself in the workaday world, I found fewer and fewer reading programs. Libraries used to offer reading recommendations, but recent budget cuts have reduced staff time and programs. Now, only children are encouraged to read, and rewarded for reading.

I am going to change that.

With Chris' Summer Reading Challenge, I encourage everyone to read as much as they can finish. Spend long summer days lounging with a book and a cold drink. I want people to be so immersed in their books they forget about lunch.

What's the reward? Give it back.

For every book read, I want readers to pledge to donate to their library or literacy program of their choice. Choose cash (a buck a book, or the cost of all books read, or even a copy of the books themselves). Find out how your library or literacy program prefers its donations. Remember: volunteer hours are an excellent way to give back, whether it's to the library or the organization of your choice.

For me, the summer solstice begins at 7:09 pm June 20. Within a week of the official start of summer, I will publish my reading list for the summer and who will benefit from my reading.

So, who's in?

In the comments below, include your reading list and your beneficiary, and how you hope to share your love of reading.

Or drop me a line and I'll share (if you let me) or respond (if it stays between us).

Let's make this a summer to remember!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

One of the Lucky Queens of Henry VIII: Plain Jane

Imagine if you are subject to the whims of a madman. You cannot refuse him. You cannot deny him. You must give him what he wants — or die. You know this to be true because other women have been in the same exact position and failed.

Plain Jane presents that very conundrum faced by Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry Tudor, known to the rest of the world, and history, as Henry VIII.

Jane is a woman who, as a child, overheard her parents describe her as unattractive, fit for a convent that they'd have to pay to take her. Her lot was to be overlooked in life and love. Or, at least, that's what she thought.

Life never happens the way one thinks.

Laurien Gardner presents a very realistic look at the Tudor court, and one of its pivotal characters. Jane is brought in as a lady-in-waiting for Queen Catherine, much beloved by the people of England and mother of Princess Mary — and numerous sons who did not live. Henry's eye alighted on the queen's French-styled lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, a sassy wench who has denied the king his prize for a price: marry her and she will give him sons.

Jane sees this drama unfold from the front seat: as a lady-in-waiting to the king, she is privy to many private moments witnessed only by the sovereigns' intimates. She watches the people in the room closely, ascertaining clues  that could save their very lives if they only watched and listened rather than screaming and reacting. She knows how Anne could manage the monarch, if she only tried.

Soon, quite by surprise, she discovers her own chance to do that very thing.

I was disappointed that we spent so little time with Queen Jane. True, her reign was very short and little is known about her. However, in that case, the entire book is speculation based on reasonable information, so why not spend more time in the marriage and less in the build-up? Lady Jane became a little tedious in her self-effacement and dismissal of her own talents and qualities, and exactly what did she think people would say to her when she was swallowed whole by her violent protector who could have anyone executed (and proved it with his own beloved wives)?

We could have used her cousin Francis more to help illustrate her fate, even flesh out the world outside the chambers of the regents.

However, I liked the speculation of one of the least-known women of Henry's kingdom. I've read quite a bit by other historical novelists who spent time in the Tudor court, and this was an interesting take on a little-known woman whose life ultimately shaped England.

Laurien Gardner actually is a pseudonym of a group of fiction writers who have examined the first three wives of Henry VIII. I wouldn't mind reading another one to see if it's equally quick and easy of a read.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Wise Words: You Are Too Smart

Whatever it is, you can do it.

The only thing standing between you and success is — well, nothing. Really. Maybe a little time and effort, but that's it.

Learn a new language, start walking, eat better, read more: whatever it is, you can do it. Starting now.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Letter Home                                                                       
--New Orleans, November 1910

Four weeks have passed since I left, and still 
I must write to you of no work. I've worn down 
the soles and walked through the tightness 
of my new shoes calling upon the merchants, 
their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking 
my plain English and good writing would secure 
for me some modest position Though I dress each day 
in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves 
you crocheted--no one needs a girl. How flat 
the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins. 
I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet 
industry, to mask the desperation that tightens 
my throat. I sit watching-- 

though I pretend not to notice--the dark maids
ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive 
anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown 
as your dear face, they'd know I'm not quite 
what I pretend to be. I walk these streets 
a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes 
of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine, 
a negress again. There are enough things here 
to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through 
the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall 
the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard 
at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking 
their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads 
on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots 
and irons of the laundresses call to me.

I thought not to do the work I once did, back bending 
and domestic; my schooling a gift--even those half days
at picking time, listening to Miss J--. How 
I'd come to know words, the recitations I practiced 
to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up
or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until
I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,
I repeated whole sections I'd learned by heart,
spelling each word in my head to make a picture
I could see, as well as a weight I could feel
in my mouth. So now, even as I write this
and think of you at home, Goodbye

is the waving map of your palm, is 
a stone on my tongue.

by Natasha Trethewey, the country's new Poet Laureate
Courtesy poets.org

Friday, June 8, 2012

Fitness Friday: Don't Let the Couch Win

Some days, it's all you can do to lace up your sneakers.

You'll never be like those marathoners, you may tell yourself, not even like those bicyclists commuting to work. And those weightlifters at the gym? Riiiight.

Who cares? Remember the chant of Camp North Starit just doesn't matter — and keep this in mind:
What are you waiting for?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ray Bradbury: A Great Writer, A Gracious Man

Ray Bradbury died Tuesday, and I am still trying to come to terms with it.

I know it sounds crazy: it's not like we were friends, right? But we were.

First of all, I am convinced he wrote for me. I was a voracious reader from an early age, and I knew Mr. Bradbury's books were meant for me. He was a space guy, which wasn't exactly my cuppa, but I trusted him — and where he took me was worth the price of admission.

Second of all, his vision was great. His scope was vast, his ideas were expansive — and yet, his stories were personal. Stuff didn't just happen, but happened to someone not unlike me. Okay, so the likelihood I would go to Mars as a child was unlikely, but it's what happened there that was personal. A Sound of Thunder resonated with me for decades after I read it, and I purchased a complete set of his short stories just so I could have it. I am a fan of time travel, and his single image of a butterfly made me ponder the responsibilities and dangers my entire life.

Finally, he was a generous man even to a young, wet-behind-the-ears feature writer.

When I was a cub reporter, I wrote about one of the best bookstores on the planet: the now-defunct Acres of Books in downtown Long Beach, California. My friend Vicky was claustrophobic when we walked in, shelves towering above us, sometimes touching low ceilings, sometimes just rising as far as physics would allow. Shoppers turned sideways when walking through the stacks, and if you passed someone in the aisle, you became very, very close friends. (I think in some countries, people would have become engaged after that contact.)

And yet I was in that bookstore every chance I got. I picked up old, brown-edged copies of paperback novels for a dime for my literature classes. (Wuthering Heights finally met its demise thirty years after I purchased it, page by page, on a Delaware beach.) I wanted to be a literature major, but my dad convinced me I'd find a better job and make better money as a journalist. I graduated one class short of a double-major, my bookshelves stocked with classic novels and classic feminist literature, all from Acres of Books.

At my first reporting job, I was able to write a weekend magazine on anything I wanted. The pay was abysmal, but I was able to write about teddy bears, Cats the musical, Chinese New Year — and Acres of Books. I had read that Mr. Bradbury was a fan of Acres of Books, having been seen in the stacks often, so I figured I'd give it a shot and see if he'd talk with me. I was nobody at a small community newspaper, but I learned that people love and trust their newspaper. Mr. Bradbury was no different. He also respected writers and loved his bookstore, and I got an interview.

I spent an hour chatting with him. I relied on a recording device attached to my phone's headset to capture the majority of the interview. However, I am a note-taker, not a doodler, so my notes still were pretty detailed. And yet — I was completely immersed in our conversation. He was gracious and generous, witty and anecdotal. He thanked me for talking with him. He. Thanked. Me.

I grew up in Los Angeles. "Stars" were a dime a dozen: movie actors, singers, people on the big screen and stage. I was in the media and took full advantage of the entertainment industry's Los Angeles offerings. I sat behind John Cusack at a movie premiere. (Yes, he was as cute as I thought he would be.) I met the Judds. I shared birthday cake with Waylon Jennings. (I don't think he ate any, but Vicky took a piece of Waylon Jenning's birthday cake home to her mom.) I interviewed Big Names. It was fun.

However, the people who left me feeling like a giddy schoolgirl were writers. In my poetry writing program, I had to try to get over that, but I never really did; I just got better at functioning while star-struck. These people wrote. I know it's hard and fun and amazing and addicting.

And Ray Bradbury thanked me for talking with him.

Some day, if I'm in the same position, I hope I have the grace and humility to know what that means to a cub reporter. I hope I can be as enthusiastic about my subject, suck them in with me, bathe them in the glory I feel — then thank them for coming along with me.

Mr. Bradbury will be missed, and not just by the aging reader who picks up his stories to travel back to her childhood and who chose a particular edition of A Princess of Mars because the great writer penned the introduction. He will be missed by the cub reporter who loved him then and loves him now, still, and will love him long after she has passed on that love of Ray Bradbury to her grandchildren.

Oh, and go to the library. It's what Mr. Bradbury would have wanted. I'll see you there.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

artwork copyrighted by blog editor

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you"- here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" -
Merely this, and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more."

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered- not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never - nevermore'."

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore:
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted- tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend," I shrieked, upstarting -
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

by Edgar Allen Poe
(courtesy Famous Poets and Poems)
Read in the video above by James Earl Jones, accompanied by Midnight Sonata

Monday, June 4, 2012

Alice: Stuck in a Time Warp, or Transcendant?

A Town Like Alice is a classic, well-received when it was published in 1950. Neville Shute created a one-of-a-kind novel that spanned decades and continents.

Which it did — just not as I had expected. It is a product of its time, and while parts of it transcend time, others are stuck firmly in it.

A Town Like Alice begins in the early years of the twentieth century. The elderly Scotsman Mr. Mcfadden asks his solicitor to help him execute his last will and testament to give his money and possessions to his only living relatives upon his death: first, to his married sister; then, if she pre-deceases him, his nephew upon his majority at 21 — and, if fate is unkind, his niece, whose legacy will be tended by the solicitors until she turns 35 (because young, unmarried women cannot manage that much money without protection from a solicitor or a husband).

Noel, the solicitor, thinks nothing of it again until after World War II, upon the death of the client. Noel must locate his next-of-kin — who, due to age and the global war, it turns out to be Jean Paget, his niece (and last in line for the uncle's fortune). The legacy is enough to allow her to live comfortably without working at a job, which Jean appreciates.

Her first decision: build a well in a small Malayan town.

She and her family had lived in Malaya for most of Jean's formative years and all had become fluent in the native language and culture. Jean and her brother had returned to Malaya before the war, and neither were unscarred when the Japanese invaded and occupied the island. Jean was among a group of British women who were taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced to walk to their camp — which never materialized, so they walked between prison camps all over the country for more than a year. During this time, Jean met an Australian prisoner who risked everything to take care of her and her kinswomen (and the children who walked with them). When the Australian is caught in his thievery, Jean's last image of him haunts her for years, and makes her reluctant to speak of her experiences as a prisoner. However, she and her fellow prisoners soon found a home: a small village where they farmed until the war was over and they were released.  It was in this village Jean intended to build the well.

Upon returning to the village, she discovers one can go home again — especially if it's the home of the heart. The East calls her, and she follows that call.

The book has three sections: during the War, after the War, and what happens after Jean constructs "a gift by women, for women."

Frankly, the book seemed tedious in some places. Shute was an aeronautical engineer who is in love with detail, and every detail is affectionately reviewed in minutiae. I can only handle Jean "filing away information" for future use a few times before I wish to remind the author that her noticing it is enough for readers to get the hint that it's an important detail.  It's worth it in the end, but it's not always easy to remember that.

Secondly, the book is a product of its time. The racial slurs are used casually and the sexism is blatant. Jean's brother would have received unfettered control of the principle by the time he was 21, but Jean has to wait until she's 35 because she's a woman? Please. The fact that the women POWs were able to come up with a solution where the men could not is understated, and the irony that a woman who can affect that much change and still not be in charge of her own legacy is absurd. Also understated is the fact that the most "developed" towns are the ones that kill more women than the less-developed and spoiled. The references to the primitive nature of the native dwellers was insulting. Don't even start me on the racism of the Australian Outback of the 1940s (which continues to this day), even if it's expressed a little differently than looking into their seamed, dark skin and making sure they have their own ice cream parlor.

You know, maybe the "understated" parts of the story just didn't warrant the same attention for the author as the "better" stuff. He highlighted the things he knew or that fascinated him, so I will have to guess that smart women and indigenous people didn't.

In the end, it was a fantastic snapshot of life in the early part of the last century. I was surprised that the afterward noted  the storyline of the English women marching around Malaya was fiction — because it was Dutch women in Sumatra who suffered that terrible fate, and the author took the story from a woman who survived it. The language and characters seemed authentic and the story was rather empowering for women, in the end, I think. Plus, the character of Noel was sweet and charming in his own way.

Speaking of characters: if Jean started one more successful business, I was going to choke her. But I liked her: very innovative and brave. Then again, if you lived through a POW camp in Asia, I bet starting your own shoe production company in the middle of the Australian Outback would be easy. And Joe: my heart just broke when he went to England looking for Jean and she wasn't there. Apparently Bryan Brown played him in a 1981 TV adaptation of the book, and I can see that.

I recommend the book, if you can see past its flaws. If you can't, stop reading immediately because they will continue to be insurmountable.

What did you think: outdated or a reminder of the strength of the human spirit?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Nightstand News: Brockmeier, Moning, Roy, Oh My!

I've cleared off my nightstand lately, finishing a few books that were lurking and keeping a few in rotation. Here's the current lineup.

First of all, I need a little book junk food, and I think Moning will fit the bill.

Second, I want to finish The God of Small Things — just because.

Then there's The Hunger Games. I can't wait to discuss this with Valerie.

I am really excited to start The Illumination. I liked Kevin Brockmeier's novel The Brief History of the Dead, and I hope this one lives up to my expectations.

The biggest surprise on this list, however, is at the top of the stack: an e-book.

I could tell you it's a free copy of Edgar Rice Burrough's A Princess of Mars. I could tell you I checked out the paperback twice from the library and ran out of time on both attempts to read it. I could tell you a lot of things that make me sound defensive, but I won't. I'm trying out an e-book a way that makes me comfortable. So far, so good: I read 18 percent of it today. (Yeah, that will take some getting used to... I mean, what do I do with my bookmarks?)

I like the book-like Kindle Fire cover, though. Reminds me what it's all about.

What's on your nightstand?