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Archive for reading log

reading log . The Wander Society

Dead poets. Cryptic messages found in old book shops. Underground publications tacked to light poles. Faces blacked out in old black and white photographs. Mysterious hieroglyphs. Collages of artifacts and inspiration.

The world of The Wander Society by Keri Smith is a mysterious one with a call to explore the unplanned and the unexpected. The book begins with an experience in a book shop where the author finds a dog-eared copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and discovers a hand-written reference to “the wander society” with the directive, “Solvitur Ambulando” — Latin for “it is solved by walking.” In a short 175 pages, Smith describes her pursuits to discover more about this mysterious organization, encounter thinkers and writers who have espoused the precepts it embodies, and develop the practice of wandering herself.

Reaching back to some of the most prominent literary figures of the past several centuries, and including a great many naturalist authors and thinkers, The Wander Society offers a kind of “suggested reading” list for those interested in the pursuit of meandering and the transcendentalist approach to living connected to the present moment and the natural world of one’s surroundings. Part arts and craft instruction and part camping handbook, the book also includes an eclectic mix of how-tos, like how to find a “talisman,” how to pack for wandering, how to make a “wander station”, and how to carve a wandering stick. Beyond that, Smith offers a collection of wandering exercises to help Society members notice their surroundings in new ways, research and document their environment, and grow in their tolerance for unscheduled exploration. In addition to the instructions and literary inspiration, The Wander Society treatise also includes a subplot of chance discoveries of artifacts and handmade zines left by wanderers before, clues to finding wanderer hang-outs, and even a mysterious professor researching the organization.

Whether the existence of The Wander Society as a secret organization is factual or just the very creative product of Keri Smith’s vivid imagination and curiosity, the effect is the same. It’s a mesmerizing collection of visual images and ideas to inspire the reader to forge connections with the physical world around us, and indulge in the discipline of letting go of time and schedule constraints. Although I’m not a subscriber to the book’s suggestion that those stops along the wanderers path and the mystic talismans found there should be elevated to a sacred status, I loved its premise of setting aside opportunities to simply allow ourselves to go where the next step takes us. As we’re surrounded with what seems like a thousand channels and devices feeding us information, each one has an ability to schedule our every moment while removing nearly every element of uncertainty or surprise from our radar. The result is that the value of quietness, wonder, and exploration are sometimes overlooked.

This concept of wandering played a wonderful role in some of our summer together this year… even down to the fact that we began to rename some of our experiences as adventures! Although we didn’t spend much time wandering by foot in this Mississippi heat, we enjoyed several automobile adventures, giving ourselves the freedom to take unexplored highways and roads through scenery and towns we’ve never visited. We set aside times to let the French concept of “flanerie” govern our travels, stopping from one town to the next, wherever an interesting building or shop or hand painted sign captured our attention. I don’t know if that makes us unofficial members of The Wander Society, but I know it helped us make memories and find inspiration in the most unlikely of places. I’ve been wandering in a different way through some of the many photographs I took on our adventures, and I can’t wait to share some of the sights and inspiration from our wanderings. Stay tuned for upcoming posts to the sojourn field guide, my Frog Kisser category archiving some of our backroads, rural adventures, and wanderings.

reading log . Inspired by MLK

One of my goals for 2017 is to read at least 25 books. The goal fits into my thinking on three areas of growth I want for myself this year. I’ll share more on that later in the week, but in short, I see this goal of concentrated, intentional reading as a way to expand my thinking and creativity.

I tend to be a binge topic reader. So, while I often have what I deem a “doesn’t require much thought” book in the mix as a way to relax, I also usually have one or two more “serious” reads that fit into whatever binge topic of the moment. For the last two years, it’s been politics and political history — mainly covering a curiosity about the last fifty years. Given the craziness of the current political climate and the uncertainty of the presidency beginning later this week, some of those reads have left a knot in the pit of my stomach. So much about the last few years has seemed a discouraging redux of unrest and social stretching. This year, I wanted to take some of that immersion in history, and tweak it to stretch my own understanding of justice — and injustice. To open my eyes to more marginalized hearts.

So, for the next books on my night stand, I’ve turned to some of the lions in the fight for social justice… a list to prime the pump of my own willingness to speak out, inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this day we celebrate his legacy. 

Strength to Love
by Martin Luther King Jr.

Published in 1963, this collection of sermon notes, bible studies, and convictions about faith and justice served to not only codify the ideals of a movement, but to inspire a new generation of nonviolent activism. Oddly, I’d never heard of it until we visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis a few years ago. The book was in Dr. King’s briefcase in the Lorraine Motel where he was shot in 1968. In her forward to the book, Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, wrote: “If there is one book Martin Luther King Jr. has written that people consistently tell me has changed their lives, it is Strength to Love.” She described it as the best explanation of “his belief in a divine, loving presence that binds all life.” 

Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation
by Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly

Clarence Jones was a speech writer and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., and his book offers an account of the weeks leading up to the March on Washington and how the “I Have a Dream” speech came to be. I heard about this book during the coverage of the 6oth anniversary of the March a few years ago, in an interview with Mr. Jones. As a “storyteller” often tasked with framing client messages, I am excited to read this account of how that role is applied to social justice.

March Trilogy
by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

I’ve been holding off on reading this trilogy until the final book came out in 2016. The graphic novels tell the personal story of Congressman Lewis, and his iconic involvement in the civil rights movement. Book One offers an account of his growing up years, his meeting of Dr. King, and the beginnings of the Nashville lunch counter sit-in campaign. Book Two covers efforts during the bus boycott, Congressman Lewis’ rise as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, his speech at the March on Washington and the Birmingham church bombing. Book Three, which won a 2016 National Book Award, continues the story including accounts of Freedom Summer, the fight against voter suppression and the march to Selma. The format of the books was inspired by the 1958 comic book, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. We have much to learn from this American hero who is still standing for freedom today. I’ve promised to pass these on to my son when I finish reading them.

Love is Love
Comic Anthology

Love is Love is an anthology of graphic impressions contributed by numerous writers and artists as a response to the Orlando Pulse shooting. The book, organized by Marc Andreyko, benefits the survivors of that terror attack, and shares many of the fears and reactions from the tragic event. Because I have dear friends in the LGBT community, I choose to look carefully at this uncomfortable and raw reaction to unspeakable violence.

So, my journey of seeing inspired by MLK begins. I hope to read with an open mind and an open heart. I hope to share some of my reactions as I make sense of them. And I’m excited to see how these new perspectives will color my own work and voice.

reading log . Summer Reading + Nixonland

The autumnal equinox arrives tomorrow, and although you wouldn’t know it by the temperatures in Mississippi, that marks the official end of summer. The children and I had some family goals for reading this summer that were a little too ambitious for our travel schedule, but each of us managed to contribute several completed books to our Montgomery Summer Reading List. The kids were quick to insist that I include my own book selections on the list as well. Like me, each of the children really do like to read, but sometimes the fun gets dampened if the reading is some kind of “assignment.” I think they wanted to be sure this was actually a fun family activity and NOT some subversive summertime homework exercise!

In addition to adding some purely fun mysteries to the Summer Reading List, I also read a few challenging books — great books that challenged me to think beneath the surface, to look critically at the culture around me, to wonder at the power of storytelling, and to be moved by the experiences of other humans. Several selections focused on events and the political and social climate of some of my coming-of-age years, the years that are too recent to show up in any of the textbooks in school. As we close out summer, I wanted to share a few posts with thoughts on some of the books I would definitely recommend you add to your reading list.



Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

by Rick Perlstein

summerbooks_nixon I started 2016 wanting to read about politics and history — maybe because the presidential contest was already in such full swing. I was particularly interested in the 1960s and 1970s, and I had been re-reading several books about the story of Watergate by Bob Woodward, including All the President’s Men, The Final Days, and his tracing of Watergate’s impact through five subsequent presidencies in Shadow. My Scribd e-reader subscription offers up suggested reading based on your book history, and Rick Perlstein’s book, Nixonland, popped up. I decided to take a look.

The book was published in 2008, and was listed as a “notable book” by the New York Times and a number of other publications. As the subtitle suggests, Nixonland is mainly the story of Richard Nixon’s political rise from the somewhat-maligned and disrespected role as Eisenhower’s Vice President to his role as the eventual President of the United States and early architect of the modern Republican Party — plus, many of the bumps in between. It is also, however, an amazingly detailed account of so much of the racial unrest that occurred during those decades, the anti-war movement, the transformation of the Republican and Democratic parties as their souls and public images virtually switched, and ultimately, the dividing of America along the political rift these realities created. I’ve seen no better account identifying the roots of today’s divisive and deadlocked political culture.

Nixonland is not an easy or a short read. It took me a big part of the summer to get through it because of how much detail the author includes. There was a lot to absorb. However, it kept my interest the whole time because of how the author dramatically weaved together so many real-life stories along with Perlstein’s poignant conclusions. It is probably the best and most comprehensive book I’ve ever read chronicling the politics and social issues of the 1960s and early 1970s. What struck me about the book was how much of the political climate mirrors what we see today. Perlstein very effectively traced seeds of our current polarized culture through these very turbulent and formative years in modern American society. So many players in modern politics pop up in the book — presidents, strategists, and politicians who dominate our news stream today. It was amazing and eye-opening to see the dots connected between so many playmakers in the public sphere.

In many ways, Nixonland was a sad book to me. It definitely turned the mirror on American culture and so much of the social issues that are still left unresolved. Reading accounts of the Watts riots, segregation, and the very divided government response alongside today’s Twitter accounts of the Black Lives Matter movement and continued racial tensions now 50 years later was very disheartening to me. To be facing some of the same issues so many years later feels like an indictment on my generation. And, race was just one social issue that emerged. Poverty, trust in government, the specter of war, the role of faith in the public sector, and the emergence of media as a catalyst and impactor of public opinion are all areas from that era that mirror today’s climate.

Perlstein ends his book at Nixon’s landslide victory for re-election in 1972, even as the foreshadowing of the Watergate fallout was looming near. He points out that just 20 months after a routing of his political opposition, Nixon would become the only U. S. President to resign the office in disgrace. Perlstein also ended with an evaluation of “Nixonland’s” logical trajectory — the polarized vitriol we see on every channel today.

“In this book I have written of the rise of two American identities, two groups of Americans, staring at each other from behind a common divide, each equally convinced of its own righteousness, each equally convinced the other group was defined by its evil.

What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self-image: a notion that there are two kinds of Americans…. and both have learned to consider the other not quite American at all.”

I highly recommend this book as a necessary read for those like me, who were barely born during these pivotal years in American culture, and yet have had so few opportunities to learn about them in ways that draw the threads tying the last decades of the 20th century to today. Nixonland, though a challenging read, also served as an inspiration for me to engage more critically in this year’s election process, to seek out a variety of voices telling the tales of social issues in our nation, and to re-engage with my own thoughts and beliefs about the nature of the democracy I’m handing down to my children.

reading log . Just Kids

I saw last week that the book Just Kids by Patti Smith won the National Book Award for non-fiction this year, and it made me think about the book again. I enjoyed reading it earlier this year, and have seen a few great interviews with Smith about it as well. It’s been a while since I’ve written about books, so I thought I would share a few thoughts about this one.

Just Kids is a poignant memoir of the love affair and life-long friendship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, two artists who became symbols of the alternative art culture of the early 1970s and whose iconic status in greater pop culture continues today. The staccato prose of the writing took some getting used to, and the rapid pace of Smith’s descriptions of encounters with poets and authors and musicians was at times dizzying. I really enjoy the stream of consciousness style, however, and I suppose her approach to recounting the pair’s activities matched the random nature of the times and the evolution of that particular sub-culture.

I’ll have to admit that there were a lot of names in Just Kids that I didn’t recognize. I’m just barely a child of the 70s and I guess my younger cultural experiences didn’t follow the same circles as those of the Hotel Chelsea scene. There were many names I knew I should recognize and felt a little tuned out because I didn’t — lost my official “artist” badge in a couple of instances, I’m sure. In fact, there were times when I felt I’d fallen into some giant cocktail party game of name-dropping. But, the people who took up the volume of Smith’s remembrance emerged as “characters” I learned in a new way.

I was quite enamored by the story as a whole and particularly by the ebb and flow of the relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe. It was an interesting study of muse and artist, of friendship, of family created out of common loves and of the weathering of change. And of course, the emergence of both the artists’ “voices” in prose, photography and song is unique and compelling.

The way Smith described the end of Mapplethorpe’s life, her continued protectiveness of him and his vision, and her process of letting him go was very moving for me. It spoke volumes about life lived entwined with another person and the realities of how that type of relationship changes by necessity over time. The poignancy of the last chapters of their relationship and Mapplethorpe’s death perhaps highlight some of the ways I was disappointed with the book. The close of their story made me cry. It moved me. It showed me her grief at losing the person who was so influential in her life. It made me feel her grief over how situations change–both for good and bad. But, in many ways it was the first time I felt I really saw her in the book.

For much of the book, I felt as if Smith was painting a picture for me. Yes, that’s partly what a memoir is, but it seemed she was trying to portray a contrived image of herself. It was clear in much of the book that her goal was to emphasize Mapplethorpe, but her perspective and role in his life would have gained greater credibility from more of that rawness I saw at the end.

For me, she didn’t answer the “oprah question.” You know, the question every onlooker would ask. She didn’t seem to address with any depth her own feelings about the delving of Mapplethorpe into the gay culture he became so synonymous with. They were lovers. And young lovers at that. At a time in their lives when both their artistic visions and their forays into adulthood were very new. That’s a very powerful relationship. The woman who described her own fantasies of being Baudelaire’s muse seemed completely detatched from the fact that her lover was hustling in male prostitution. She seemed almost indifferent to his decision to pursue a homosexual lifestyle. For someone who throughout the rest of the book infused so much meaning into small details and chance encounters, it seemed just a little too cosmopolitan. I was amazed by her acceptance of Mapplethorpe’s choices, and I recognize that acceptance as one thing that made their relationship so enduring and impactful for the two of them. But, I wanted to see her care. I wanted to see her work through the emotions of that change in their relationship. It would have brought a very human perspective to the “starting gun” affect his work continues to have in our culture.

All in all, I really enjoyed Just Kids as a memoir, as a record of a very intriguing time and a very intriguing art “scene.” I just wish that in her zest to show me Mapplethorpe, Smith would have shown me more of herself as well.

Twenty Books

I’ve been thinking about books a lot lately. I just finished reading Just Kids by Patti Smith, a memoir of her life and friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. What is it about books, whether mysteries or memoirs or monographs, that have such power to move me? Just Kids was at times poignant, at times an exercise in frustration, at times an obscure literary lesson and at times a huge 60s and 70s cocktail party. But, at the end, when the final scenes for Patti and Robert were played out before his death, I was moved to tears. It was such an unavoidable description of the realities of goodbye and hello and time spent and time lost and unexpected outcomes and enduring soul kinship. And, since I’m writing this to the backdrop of Little Drummer Boy and Baby Girl giggling and playing together, I’m realizing it was also a story of life lived and how it moves on. Quite a range of thinking from just 279 pages.

I’m not sure I have ever in my life been able to read words on a page without thinking about them. Yes, I sometimes realize at bedtime that I’ve reached the end of my 647th encounter with Corduroy or Harry the Dirty Dog or The Tale of Peter Rabbit without remembering the actual act of speaking the words. But, the first time I read them I thought about them. The first time I read them I engaged in some strange process of extracting personal reactions or obscure life lessons. Many of the books my children read are copies I had as a child myself. I’m sure my first time reading them as a parent produced different thoughts than my times reading them as a youngster. That’s just how it goes.

I’m in the midst of deciding on the next book to read and culling down a list of possibilities gleaned from way too much time spent with NPR email alerts and the New York Times Book Review. I don’t know why I always get indecisive with this process. It’s not like I can’t put a book down and pick up another one at my leisure. Sometimes the decision represents some tantalizing combination of being afraid a book won’t live up to its billing and of being afraid it will so surpass its billing that it will haunt me for months or years. Perhaps I’m overthinking. While I decide and reign myself in, I thought I’d offer up a Tuesday Twenty list of books I’d be delighted to RE-read. I just read an interview in the LA Times with John McPhee, the author and long-time columnist for The New Yorker. The article was about his upcoming book of personal essays (just another addition to the list of reading possibilities *sigh*), and in it, he offered some sage insight about being a reader, despite his ample experience being the writer in the equation. He observed that “the creative person in this process is the reader, by a long shot. The writer supplies three or four words, but the reader makes the picture.” These books have afforded me the opportunity to paint a unique picture on one or more occasions in my reading. And, I’m convinced another reading would give me an entirely new view. The power of a good book.

1. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Some folks tire of the intricate detail found in Edith Wharton’s work, but I really enjoy the description of New York society during the turn of the 20th Century. It’s a toss-up between this more popular novel and The House of Mirth. Both have such a wrenching view of women living outside the constraints of the trappings of that society.

2. Emma by Jane Austen
Fills my latent romantic tendencies. Downright funny at times, and there’s a happy ending!

3. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
The most poignant part in the first reading: Ellen thinks her last name is Foster because people always refer to her as “that Foster child.” Hers is a story of triumph and Kaye Gibbons’ Southern stream of consciousness is remarkable, if you like that sort of thing. I’d read any of her books again. Seriously.

4. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
Vermeer. Enough said. But, the fictional tale surrounding the moments captured in one of his most astounding works is bittersweet, eloquent and artistic.

5. Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather
Years later, I’m still thinking about the bittersweet end of this beautiful novel about a woman who wants so much more than what the culture she lives in is willing to give her.

6. A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Bailey
Told entirely in letters, this story of a woman’s powerful spirit made me want to go out and buy stationery. The lost art of letters never looked so attractive.

7. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I can’t tell you how many times I read this as a child. It still stirs me, both from the family story, the independence of “Jo” and my own memories of reading it.

8. 31 Hours by Masha Hamilton
Published just last year, I’m astounded by the restraint in this book, by the new perspective on terrorism, by the mother’s heart described, by the uncommon experiences found in the common subway.

9. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls was my best friend in elementary school. It would be good to see her again.

10. The Lively Art of Writing by Lucille Vaughan Payne
This little book was my 9th grade English textbook. Thank you, Mrs. Armstrong. I still use the principles today. And, I still choose when to lovingly ignore them.

11. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
I read this book way back in college, and I think explored the evolution of cities in a project centered on it. It is an amazing glimpse of the fragmented sociology of kingdoms told by a fictional Marco Polo. The young European explorer offers Kublai Khan, the aging asian emperor, tales of the cities throughout his empire. As it turns out, the stories all describe the same city — a lesson in points of view.

12. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
No elaboration required.

13. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
An unforgettable non-fiction account of one reporter’s indoctrination into all things Southern and a beautiful and quirky account of the mystery and crazy culture of Savanah, GA. Best tombstone epitaph: a bench at the grave of Conrad Aiken is inscribed with “cosmos mariner, destination unknown.”

14. Night by Elie Wiesel
You may have seen the account of my first reading of this memoir. I still shrink back from the book, but crave the undeniable reality check on human nature it offers.

15. Creating a Beautiful Life by Alexandra Stoddard
Every time I look at this book, I’m encouraged to pay attention to the little things and value beauty in my life. Beauty, as I behold it, is important and it’s not that hard to achieve.

16. On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon by Kaye Gibbons
A very moving tale of a woman during the Civil War era. In my first reading, I was compelled to record Emma Garnett’s thoughts on seeing the jarring, but numbing realities of that war through photos, and how it would have been more powerful in paintings…

“If Monet or Manet or Toulouse-Lautrec had performed the scenes of battle, I might have been urged toward emotion, for the horror would have quivered on the surface of the page and beckoned my mind to follow attendant sensations deeper and deeper to the core, down into the true, wasted, stupid, futile blasphemy of that conflict.”

17. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
An example of C.S. Lewis’ creativity and a treatise on the nature of evil told from the perspective of a young devil in training.

18. The Divine Romance by Gene Edwards
A beautiful telling of the story of God–his creation, his work, his redemption–expressed as a love story. The very first page describes two essentials of God’s existence in the pre-dawn of creation. God was alone. And, God was love. A profound paradox of coexistence for both God and man — the lover without the loved.

18. My Mississippi by Willie Morris
Who can escape the words of Willie Morris. His thoughts about his (and my) home state are moving, steeped in memory and the fervor of the unique life here. His essay is accompanied by a collection of photos of the state taken by his son.

20. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
The first descriptive word that came to mind when I read this book originally was “ethereal.” Its descriptions of characters and of the Newfoundland area were beautiful. The journey of a man coming to grips with his own history and finally learning to love was like a deep breath.

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